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FMCT’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat may only be running for two weekends, but the show is months in the making. Over the next couple days, join me on a journey as I explore the theatre and talk shop with the designers, actors, and crewmembers responsible for breathing new life into this old classic.

COUNTDOWN TO JOSEPH, PART 5: Tamie Maddocks, Stage Manager
For FMCT by Andy Gustafson

One of my favorite theatre jokes goes a little something like this:

Producer: Gives policy to God.

Director: Talks with God.

Playwright: Is occasionally addressed by God.

Stage Manager: IS God.

For those unfamiliar with the behind the scenes aspect of theatre, the question needs must be asked: Who is the stage manager, and what gives them the right to rule over the theatrical pantheon? The simple answer is competence incarnate. A more specific answer would point you toward Tamie Maddocks, the stage manager for FMCT’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Like any deity must, we ascend toward the heavens to take our place among the theatre gods—that is, we climb the dark, secret stairway up to the control booth. A control booth is generally located in the back of the house and set high above the seats, where the stage manager and board operators have a clear view of the theatre. Long counters are covered in computers and production boards, all the knobs to turn and switches to flip and keys to press that molds a show into a spectacle. Tamie and I settle on some stools and gaze out into the theatre, quiet and empty before the night’s rehearsal.

But it takes a little more than climbing stairs to really reach those lofty heights. Like any heroes later worshipped among the greats, stage managers must perform many fine feats of skill. A stage manager might not be a director or designer, but they’re in charge of scheduling, cast wrangling, and facilitating any task that the directors need done. Depending on what the director asks, a stage manager will also take notes, map out blocking (marks actors need to hit), and send out necessary communiques. Often the most important job is the crown jewel of stage managing: calling cues. That is, he or she is the person who puts the control in “control booth.” They are the grease that makes all the gears in the clockwork turn. For all intents and purposes, they are omniscient.

Which makes Tamie’s position here all the more impressive, as the Mapleton native didn’t even have any theatre experience until three years ago, when Rural Cass County Community Theatre put on their own production of Joseph.

“[The company] had recently been formed,” Tamie says, and the people at the helm were none other than directors of this FMCT production, Darcy and Lauren Brandenburg. “I happened to know Lauren fairly well. She and I were friends even before the theatre came about. I just said, ‘I would love to help you with whatever you need help with, but I have no acting experience and I don’t want to be involved in that way.’ And two days later, she sent me an email.” The Brandenburgs had found their stage manager, and Tamie has been working with them ever since.

Each venue, company, and director has their own needs, and while NYC’s Metropolitan Opera might regularly need a whopping four stage managers to get their productions off the ground, a fledgling theatre company in North Dakota requires a different sort of proficiency, and in that, Tamie is a master. During her time with the RCCCT, she’s had to be props master, costume assistant, and children herder. And like any stage manager worth her salt, she takes care of problems during the performance, too, like when a fuse went out during Oliver (2012), leaving the orchestra without the ability to see their music. “They didn’t have lights. They didn’t have anything. They could do nothing, and so the gentleman who was supposed to have a solo was onstage and was improvising, and we’re running around trying to figure out which switch to flip so [the orchestra lights] come back on.” They pulled it off, audience none the wiser, and that’s what theatre’s all about. “That’s what makes it fun.”

It’s clear that despite only a couple years of experience, Tamie has caught the theatre bug, and she agrees with my assessment. “I can’t imagine not ever being involved in some way, even if it’s sweeping the stage after the show. Someone asked me once, ‘Why do you do it? Why do you do the stage managing thing?’ And I said, ‘You know, one thing I love about being the stage manager is I get to be the boss.’” She laughs. “Anybody who knows me very well will tell you that I’m pretty bossy and very opinionated and a little bit boisterous.”

It’s good that she’s got opinions, because another vital role of the stage manager is to be a major sounding board for the director—or in the case of Joseph, directors. “They asked me to come and sit in on auditions and be another set of ears. I took music lessons for years when I was a kid, so I think I have a fairly good ear, [but] I don’t hear half the stuff they do. They’re brilliant…It’s very affirming, in that they respect me enough to ask my opinion, and respect me enough to go with what my opinion might be.” Darcy and Lauren certainly knew what they were doing when inviting Tamie along, because while they found themselves stumped, Tamie was there to put some extra work into the problem. She remembers, “At first when I thought about it, it was the middle of the night, I could not sleep, it was 3am…and I finally just picked up my phone and I typed [my idea] all out. Then I went to sleep.” Her idea? That there should be two head Narrators instead of just one. So thanks to her early morning bit of brilliance, the FMCT production was able to hop right back on track, and the Brandenburgs were free to direct their attention and creativity toward the next step in production.

But Tamie downplays her importance, citing the hard work the cast puts in each time they come to the theatre. “I’m coming to rehearsal every night. And every time I watch these guys do something, I see or hear something amazing. Every single night is different, every day. Like last night they were doing this scene and the kids were all there and one of the narrators hit this high note and I got goosebumps all over. And so for me, that’s what Joseph is all about.”

I ask her to expand. “Joseph doesn’t have an easy life. It’s dark out. You think he’s the golden child and he’s never going to do anything, or be anything less than wonderful. He just goes through so many trials and tribulations.” Yet in the resolution, Joseph is reunited with his family, and there is a light at the end of the darkness. The music, the story: it’s all uplifting.

Tamie can relate. “To come here, and to see the people and get to know them and feel like, as corny as it sounds, they’re a part of my family now. I see one of the girls up there and it just warms my heart and I think, ‘Oh, one of my daughters!’” Even more exhilarating for cast and crew, Tamie says, is that the audience will get caught up in those feelings, too. “Because of the size of the theatre, there’s no chair that’s a bad chair. It’s very intimate; there’s only going to be 300 of your closest friends sitting around you! There’s just that excitement they have onstage that is driving into their story, and that they are giving to you. That’s what I want every person in the audience to have: feel like they’re a part of the story.”

She is undoubtedly and deservedly proud of her Joseph family, of which she is, as the stage manager, their firm but loving parent. I wonder if there’s a moment she’s most proud of, but Tamie shakes her head. “I don’t know what I’m most proud of. Every single show has a special place in my heart. I suppose I’m really proud every time, after every show: Whew, well, we did that! Get ready for tomorrow!”

A stage manager’s attitude, indeed: have fun while the performance lasts, but let’s keep on track for the next one.

For now, it’s time to get ready for rehearsal tonight. As we start shutting down the lights and saying goodbye to the best view of the house, we descend back to earth, and all the work to bedone. Tamie has dinner to eat and a rehearsal to prepare, as the production’s anchor and lodestone. Soon the empty stage will be full of actors, singing their story the best way they know how, sharing their pain, joy, and love with each other.

And soon, they’ll be ready to share their story with you.

See the hard work of Tamie Maddocks and the rest of the cast and crew come to fruition in FMCT’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The show runs April 4-5 and 10-12 at 7:30pm and April 6, 12, and 13 at 2:00pm.

CLICK HERE for Tickets to Joseph

Join me next time as I talk to the next member of the FMCT Joseph family, the titular Joseph, Anthony Eddleston.

Previously on “Countdown to Joseph

Part 1: Jeff Nibbe, Technical Director and Scenic Designer

Part 2: Mary Beth Pilon, Narrator

Part 3: Katelyn Swearingen, Choreographer

Part 4: Steve Poitras, Pharaoh

COUNTDOWN TO JOSEPH, PART 4: Steve Poitras, Pharaoh

FMCT’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat may only be running for two weekends, but the show is months in the making. Over the next week, join me on a journey as I explore the theatre and talk shop with the designers, actors, and crewmembers responsible for breathing new life into this old classic.

COUNTDOWN TO
by Andy Gustafson

A theatre is often filled with voices. In fact, The Stage as a whole is usually bursting with them: actors rehearsing a scene in the classroom, singers belting out a tune in the Pavilion, tech crew chatting as they paint the set. During the business day, however, conversation is quieter and the loudest noise tends to be the telephone. It’s easy to get lost in the rhythm of routine, so it comes as quite a shock when that rhythm is broken by a deep, booming laugh in the hallway. I perk up, because this can only mean one thing:

Ladies and gentlemen, Pharaoh is in the building.

Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler who asks Joseph to interpret his dreams, is being played by Steve Poitras, local television and radio personality and resident theatre lover. It seems only fitting to lead him into the theatre itself, where the dim light of the sconces makes the set glow golden. We settle in the front row and survey his kingdom: pyramids, palm trees. It is indeed grand. Even grander is the presence of Steve Poitras, who easily fills the empty space through the power of his voice, honed over many years of radio, television, and theatre. As he starts speaking, I immediately get comfortable because I can tell I’m not about to get any stock answers to my questions—I’m about to get at story.

“I’m out of Clay County” – thus begins Steve’s tale, but his journey takes him far from home before he finds his way back. At first his moves are small: as a child he moved from Barnesville to Moorhead, then as a college student from NDSU to MSUM. After taking part in Straw Hat for many years, he went to Illinois for graduate school. “I was actually a part of a graduate repertory company at Illinois State University from the fall of ’67 until very early ’69 [when] the draft finally caught up to me.”

Steve’s theatrical journey came to a halt as he trained for combat, and later sent overseas. “I essentially spent all of 1970 in Vietnam,” he tells me. After being released from active duty, he went back to Moorhead State to continue his graduate work, where he was immediately cast as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. “So I went from being a GI in Southeast Asia in early December to getting to play one of the greatest roles in all of musical theatre about seven weeks later,” Steve marvels. “That was a gas.”

Nor did his journey stop there. Steve had “an extensive period of drifting around,” working in Colorado and California before returning to the area. He built up his radio chops at the Brown Institute of Broadcasting in Minneapolis and spent a few years on the air in Montana. When he finally settled in Fargo, Steve worked as a weatherman for over a dozen years, and taught at Moorhead State for a dozen more. Now, though he is “basically retired,” you can still catch him Saturdays on KFGO hosting “Trivia Time.”

Despite his busy life here in town, Steve did not neglect the theatre. He worked with several companies in the region before doing his first FMCT production during the 03-04 season. He’s performed at The Stage off and on up until last December, when he played Professor Marvel in the FMCT musical production of The Wizard of Oz. Now, he continues his journey as the infamous Pharaoh in Joseph.

“One thing I’m excited about is the fact that there’s a lot of music,” he says. “Professor Marvel didn’t get to sing at all but here, I get to sing. I like to sing. I’ve got a big voice.” He booms with more laughter, momentarily drowning out the noise filtering in from the scene shop behind the set. “The songs, they’re indelible. They get into your head.”

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is indubitably a catchy show, and Pharaoh’s solo is arguably the catchiest song of the lot. It’s strange and wonderful and unforgettable at once; it’s not often, after all, you see an Ancient Egyptian god-king twisting his hips to fifties rock ’n’ roll. Traditionally, an actor playing the monarch will channel another king. The King, in fact: Elvis Presley.

“[It’s] the rendering of the big song,” Steve explains. “It’d be pretty hard not to do it a la Elvis to some degree, if not a great degree.” And Steve is definitely looking to bring that man to the table. “Obviously [Elvis had] a stage presence matched by few in history. He was so incredibly talented, and confident in that talent without being arrogant about it. I’ve read more than a little about Elvis,” he admits, but playing this role is going to be a bit more special than that.

Steve confides, “You know, I’m old enough that I was around when Elvis was brand new. I remember even before “Heartbreak Hotel,” the first song I ever heard of Elvis was “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” That was when I was nine years old. And I thought to myself, wow.” He shakes his head at the memory, awe still evident in his voice, all this time later. “I’ll always associate his best songs as the ones that preceded his time in the army.” And it is this young Elvis that Steve is hoping to channel. “Maybe I’ll be visited by the muse of Elvis to feel some of those moves,” he jokes.

Aside from digging The King’s style, what type of a guy is Pharaoh, really? “I think Pharaoh’s a pretty likeable character,” Steve says. “He’s number one. He’s pretty comfortable because everybody’s going to pay deference to the pharaoh.” While he does mention there are hints of darkness in the character if you know where to look, Steve then leans in as if imparting a secret: “Pharaoh isn’t afraid of making a little fun of himself.” He chuckles, and the radio-rich sound bounces off the walls.

Yet Steve leaves no doubt that people have plenty more to get excited about than Egyptian rock when they come to see Joseph. “I think [the show] has lots of appeal, from many different angles. Often the theme in many productions, whether it’s a play or movie or a book, boils down to boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, or variations [thereof],” he points out. This story does not follow that pattern. “Family loses brother, brother goes through some harrowing experiences, he triumphs and then brothers, unknowingly, meet brother again…The family that is split apart is welded back together once again.”

The story is not all that recommends Joseph.  “It’s the charming music,” he lists. “Darcy and Lauren Brandenburg [co-directors, are] really familiar with the show. They’re really experienced. Anthony Eddleston, who’s playing Joseph, has a wonderful voice. Just to the extent that I have worked with him, I couldn’t ask for more. [And] to have these charming, talented, and fun little kids in the show…” Steve smiles. “Man, that’s a treat in itself.”

It’s not just the fact that the children – several of whom co-starred with Steve in Oz as munchkins – are fun and talented. Steve points out that it’s incredible justhow much experience they have. “Fargo-Moorhead is absolutely unique, or at least it has to be very, very rare in this country, where you have the breadth of different productions of all levels going on—and the quality that is associated with them as well—you’re just continually astounded.” FMCT’s production of Joseph is a great example of this, with ages ranging from those munchkins to Steve and other castmates who will be starring in the Silver Follies production in May.

But mostly, Steve says of the show, “It is very bright in spirit, and it’s going to be bright in set and costume. After all, it’s called the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, so there’s a suggestion in and of itself.” There certainly is a reason that the dreamcoat steals a place on the marquee alongside the main character. In addition to the show’s bright spirit that honors the vividness of the coat, the many colors that make up the garment are mirrored in the pastiche of mood and style each song brings to the stage. And each character, perhaps especially Pharaoh, is a fascinating mix of different cultures and ideas in and of themselves.

Steve also follows this multicolored pattern: to FMCT he brings his vast experience in various media, his knowledge of music and places, and his enthusiastic voice to his work. Not even the interview is immune to this kaleidoscopic change; we meander from the theatre into history and language, speaking of figures from William the Conqueror to Thomas Paine, Aristotle to Freud.

As the interview – the conversation now, really – draws to a close, I’m shocked at how much time has passed since we first sat down. I figure I could sit for an hour more, just discussing every subject under the theatre house lights—er, that is, the Ancient Egyptian sun. There is no doubt that Steve’s many years standing in front of cameras, classrooms, and audiences has served him well when it comes to commanding an audience. But the show can’t go on as it must if we don’t end here.

Before we leave the theatre, though, I turn to look at the set, Pharaoh’s kingdom, one last time. It’s empty now, but soon the monarch will make his grand entrance, standing upon his pyramid and looking down at his adoring fans, Egyptian and Midwestern alike. What kind of show will he give us? What kind of journey will he take us on?

Steve, as is his wont, fills the air with his laughter. “People can come out and see: can the old bugger still do it, or what?”

I don’t know about you, but my money? It’s on yes.

See the hard work of Steve Poitras and the rest of the cast and crew come to fruition in FMCT’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The show runs April 4-5 and 10-12 at 7:30pm and April 6, 12, and 13 at 2:00pm.

CLICK HERE for tickets to Joseph

Join me tomorrow as I talk to the next member of the FMCT Joseph family, stage manager Tamie Maddocks.

Previously on “Countdown to Joseph” click to read

Part 1: Jeff Nibbe, Technical Director and Scenic Designer

Part 2: Mary Beth Pilon, Narrator

Part 3: Katelyn Swearingen, Choreographer

 

COUNTDOWN TO JOSEPH, PART 3

FMCT’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat may only be running for two weekends, but the show is months in the making. Over the next two weeks, join me on a journey as I explore the theatre and talk shop with the designers, actors, and crewmembers responsible for breathing new life into this old classic.

COUNTDOWN TO JOSEPH, PART 3: Katelyn Swearingen, Choreographer
by Andy Gustafson – For FMCT

It’s a sleepy morning at The Stage, and the Burgum Pavilion is dim under the gray sky. The clouds, sweeping endlessly overhead, cannot decide whether they’re raining or snowing. It gives the usually bright Pavilion the appearance of an old snow globe, tiny white crystals swirling against the glass. No glitter, though. The world is monochrome this morning, and it’s hard to believe that anything could shift the molasses hanging in the air. But shift it does: I have another interview to lead, and Katelyn Swearingen has arrived.

It’s so early that the only other people stirring are the cleaning crew, whose vacuum I can hear running faintly down the hallway. Katelyn, however, comes in with a burst of energy that immediately livens up the Pavilion’s sluggish atmosphere. This is all the more surprising considering that after our interview, she has to attend class and then she’s leaving on a field trip with the NDSU Concert Choir and Madrigal Singers. And she still has to worry about Joseph, as she’s the musical’s choreographer.

 

But Katelyn’s not worried. “I was just packing this morning,” she grins. “It should be fun.”

She’s apparently well-versed in having her fingers in many pies, though perhaps that’s a poor metaphor for what she does. That implies she dabbles, getting in sticky situations in the process.  But clearly she is both passionate and dedicated; she’d have to be, to win a spot in an elite group like the Madrigals, or get offered the job of choreographer for a show as big as Joseph. I figure she must be very experienced in order to handle juggling all these things, but theatre’s a bug she caught relatively recently.

“I didn’t get started until I was a freshman in high school,” Katelyn says. “My choir took a trip and we saw Wicked, and it got me hooked.” Then she got really involved in her school’s theatre. “I’ve always been a dancer, so it fit pretty easily, singing and dancing.”

So Katelyn brings her dancing, singing, and acting experience to the table. But what about choreography? She started her theatrical journey with Wicked, and it seems she’s continued her career by following the yellow brick road until she became assistant choreographer for FMCT’s December production of The Wizard of Oz.

“Scott [Brusven, The Stage’s Artistic Director] had mentioned Joseph around Wizard of Oz,” she recalls, “so it’s kind of been in the back of my mind…I think it was when I came back from Christmas break, I was watching the movie again.”

Again?

“I went to Catholic school, so if we had a day in music class where the teacher didn’t want to teach or something, we’d watch Joseph,” she jokes, “or we watched Music Man, because I went to Catholic school in Iowa.” She shrugs as if to say, ‘them’s the breaks.’ Yeah, if I had a nickel every time I’ve been asked about Fargo. “So it was just bringing back all those memories and getting ready to do it.”

That seed may have spent months in the soil, but now that it’s a full-blown tree, it must seem daunting. The music is central to any musical, but Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a conglomeration of various styles. In order to sell fifties rock’n’roll or Caribbean calypso in the ancient Middle East, much of that burden must necessarily fall on choreography and how the characters physically inhabit that music.

Katelyn points out that it requires more than just her to conquer such a task. “I think it’s a really good mix of direction plus choreography, because Lauren and Darcy [Brandenburg, co-directors] have a vision of what they want.” And of course you can’t forget who’s doing the dancing in the first place: actors. “Usually what I do is I give them a lot of freedom, because I feel like they’ve been doing more character development and I don’t really have the authority to tell them who they are. Like there’s a part [with the many brothers] where they get to walk away, and I tell them, ‘If your character is an angry brother, then you stomp away. If you’re a shy one, then you tiptoe away.’ I just give them that liberty…I typically tend to stick with the style, and let them do the character work on their own.”

But just how closely should a choreographer of Joseph stick with a certain style? Because there are so many anachronisms in the musical, it could be easy to add any flair you’d like into each dance.

Katelyn is not taking that approach. “I’m trying to stick to the original. This is the one thing that Lauren and Darcy were really keen about when we started this process. They said, ‘We don’t want to just give a nod to the style that’s going on in the scene; we want to completely embrace it.’ So the country hoedown is a huge hoedown, and the tango is obviously tango…Looking exactly where the roots of the styles are, that’s where I drew from.”

As far as I understand it, her background is mostly in ballet when it comes to dance. She does admit there’s been a learning curve. “I didn’t know how to tango going into it, but there’s a huge tango dance break so I learned and [the actors] learned with me.” She states this matter-of-factly, as if quickly mastering a difficult dance in order to teach it to other beginners is just another day at the office. For her, I suppose it is.

Dancing with the Stars, eat your heart out.

Still, that’s a lot of work. Having grown up with the musical, and now spending much of her free time on it, I wonder if it gets frustrating or boring. Katelyn assures me of the opposite. “[Joseph’s] just fun, because it’s one of those things you never really get tired of watching. I mean, it’s still funny…You get the message, it’s serious, but at the same time there are those moments of comic relief that make it really appealing. I mean, the kids that are sitting onstage? They react to the things that are happening.”

From the way she lights up, the Children’s Chorus might just be her favorite thing she’s talked about so far. “It’s awesome,” she agrees. “It’s so much fun. I feel like it’s the kids who really make it a family show, and it’s just so cool to hear a chorus of twenty kids just singing their hearts out because that’s all they know how to do.”

Katelyn also got a chance to teach them some sweet moves. In fact, that’s one of the reasons she thinks that “Go, Go, Go Joseph” might be her favorite number. “It’s going to be really cool when we get everybody involved in that. We have them going out into the aisles and everything. It’s the iconic number of the show, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.”

The adult and kid actors working together is an important aspect of the show for Katelyn. “The thing that’s so great about this cast is that it’s a huge community effort.” There’s a large age span in the production, from six-year-olds to performers old enough to be taking part in FMCT’s Silver Follies show in May. But that’s not all. “Everybody comes from these different backgrounds, like there are people that have never been in a show before, and they’re just as good and just as excited. And you put all these energies together, [and] the creativity that they share…It’ll show onstage how everything comes together.”

Arguably, Katelyn has quite the different background herself. Moving here for college was, Katelyn confesses, “a really big culture shock.” The dissimilarities between Fargo and her hometown of Iowa City have, in some way, made it difficult for her to find her niche in the area.

But that’s what made her community theatre debut last summer so important and affirming. At The Stage last August, ACT UP Theatre presented bare: A Pop Opera [sic], a musical that follows the story of two gay young men at a Catholic school. The show was a great success, moving the audience to tears every night. “I honestly think that we had a huge impact on the community,” she tells me. In fact, ACT UP is reviving the production this summer for the FM area before getting ready to take it abroad to the world-famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.

From watching Wicked to an international presentation of her own theatrical work: a long road indeed for a handful of years. It just goes to show that you never know where those yellow bricks might take you, as long as you seize the opportunity—and those opportunities should belong to everyone, even when it comes down to a single show like Joseph. Even with such a huge cast, there’s no favoritism here. “I think we use everybody in the best way possible,” says Katelyn proudly. “I don’t think there’s a single person that we don’t give some featured moment to, even if it’s just one line or just one dance move in front of everyone. I think that everybody is honestly being showcased, so it’s really, really fun to watch.”

It’s a lovely thing to hear, and even more amazing to think that not long ago, Katelyn was in the same shoes as those inJoseph’s cast who’ve never been in a show before. But maybe their featured moment will give them the theatre bug as well, and we’ll all watch their stars rise over the next couple years. Exciting times for the community, no doubt.

None of that happens without hard work, however, and I’ve already taken up enough time in Katelyn’s busy day. In just a couple hours – and one class later – she’ll be touring the Midwest with her choir for a week before returning to Fargo and twirling her way back into rehearsal.

It may not be what she’s used to, I think, as she strides out the door, but a theatre is its own kind of home, no matter where you’re from. To create a show is to bring together the technical with the artistic, hard work with fun, tragedy with comedy. It’s taking a diverse group of people, of varying age, experience, class, or region, and giving them a space in which to help and learn from each other. In short, like Joseph, the theatre is all about fun and family.

So, theatre vet? Theatre newbie? Doesn’t matter. Come take a chance on Joseph, a gift the company has come together to bring to you.

Our doors are wide open.

See the hard work of Katelyn Swearingen and the rest of the cast and crew come to fruition in FMCT’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The show runs April 4-5 and 10-12 at 7:30pm and April 6, 12, and 13 at 2:00pm.

Join me in a couple days as I talk to the next member of the FMCT Joseph family, rockin’ Pharaoh Steve Poitras.

Previously on “Countdown to Joseph

Part 1: Jeff Nibbe, Technical Director and Scenic Designer

Part 2: Mary Beth Pilon, Narrator

Click the image to get your tickets

COUNTDOWN TO JOSEPH, PART 2

FMCT’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat may only be running for two weekends, but the show is months in the making. Over the next three weeks, join me on a journey as I explore the theatre and talk shop with the designers, actors, and crew members responsible for breathing new life into this old classic.

COUNTDOWN TO JOSEPH, PART 2: Mary Beth Pilon, Narrator

by Andy Gustafson – for FMCT

It’s evening at The Stage, and outside the air is cool with the stubborn, clinging vestiges of winter. As I cross the street the building looms closer, seemingly empty and silent. But this is not the quiet that comes at the end of the day. When darkness falls at the theatre, business is only beginning.

For my next interview, I leave the intricate world of design and sidle through the side door to acting. Literally: I find myself brushing elbows with company members trickling in to rehearse for Joseph or the following FMCT production, The Bikinis. They move on into the theatre or the classroom, but I stick in that side hallway, dimly lit, gravitating toward the wide, comfy couch near the pop machine. It hums gently as I settle down with my laptop and notebook and wait for the interviewee. My quarry: Mary Beth Pilon, one of the two Narrators of the show. We haven’t met before, and so we decided to get together in a familiar place where we couldn’t help but catch each other.

It’s a half an hour before rehearsal begins, but already the building feels full. Joseph cast and crew get to pile into the theatre, a still novel experience for them in the rehearsal process. The set is slowly taking shape and clearly they’re loving the atmosphere; snippets of song are already tumbling out the doors and into the hallway.

I tap my pen to their rhythms as I keep an eye on that side door to my right, perking up every time it opens in anticipation of my appointment. But a voice comes from my left – belonging to one of the early arrivals getting revved up in the theatre – questioning, “Is that…?”

I turn around and smile. “Mary Beth?” I ask. It is—and she’s not alone.

Hanging on her hand is her daughter, Hannah, singing in Joseph as part of the Children’s Chorus. At first I think I might have just scored myself a two-for-one interview, but after Mary Beth sits in the comfy chair next to my couch, Hannah crawls onto her mother’s lap and shyly averts her gaze. Ah, I remember what that was like. I choose to give her a break to focus on her mother instead. Still, I’m a bit disarmed taking in the both of them, because the Narrator in Joseph has always seemed to come from nowhere, anywhere, a woman whose sole purpose is to tell the story without us learning much about her, or even needing to. But here is Mary Beth, clearly with a rich life and history. An actor is not her role, of course, but my mind immediately starts whirring with interesting possibilities because it’s still about how the actor shapes the role, isn’t it? For this production the Narrator’s role has been split in two (the other Narrator being Terri Verkuilen), but even so they’ll both be spending most of their time onstage. Mary Beth’s Narrator is still a leading role, though she’s not technically a character in the story itself. She has a title, not a name. The Narrator is a gessoed canvas, a solid beginning, but how many more layers and colors should be added to give her life?

“I’m telling a story and it’s not about me, you know what I mean?” says Mary Beth. “My role is just to sell Joseph’s story and to not upstage him or [the others] in any way. And yet critical to the process is me, being able to tell it so that people are going to engage with it.”

A delicate tightrope to walk, certainly. The Narrator is nearly omnipresent, singing with the characters, above them, around them. It’s inevitable that she get involved in some fashion. In the infamous Donny Osmond film of Joseph, the Narrator interacts quite a bit with him and his brothers, drinking incongruous Caribbean drinks and gnawing on a drumstick as starving men wait longingly for a scrap. She is both aloof, and in the thick of it: but where does one draw the line? Is the Narrator an omniscient storyteller, or is she just an extra in Joseph’s story, even as she tells it?

“Often I hear from Darcy and Lauren [Brandenburg, co-directors], ‘You’re going to have a moment with Joseph.’ So Joseph and I are going to look at each other and somehow connect. I send him off into the wide world, and I sincerely hope he makes it…Or if I sing oh now brothers / how low can you stoop, I’m looking at them like a bunch of filthy animals, like jerks. [So] I think it’s very interactive without overshadowing them in their roles.” She grins and shrugs. “I don’t want to be a major, flashy girl.”

Perhaps that’s a sentiment one might expect from someone who hails from the humble town of LaMoure, ND. But despite what could be a simple first impression – short hair, plain glasses, no-fuss clothes – a second glance is all it takes: the way she downplays her presence is belied by the orange scarf tied artfully around her neck, bright with multi-colored stripes. It has just the right amount of flair to remind me of the name of the show: Technicolor, and amazing.

Besides, Mary Beth might be from a small town, but that doesn’t mean she lacks a good amount of musical and theatrical experience. She fondly recalls the LaMoure County Summer Musical Theatre, which also happens to be where the Brandenburgs got their start. And after majoring in music and becoming a teacher for some years (she now works as a guidance counselor), she got involved in the Rural Cass Community Theatre in Casselton. For Joseph, in fact. And none other than the husband and wife team of Darcy and Lauren Brandenburg were directing. And, you guessed it, Mary Beth played the Narrator.

“The difference this time, though, [is that] they split it two ways. It’s interesting because the other Narrator has a phenomenal voice. She takes on a different role than I do,” Mary Beth explains. “I’m much more reserved. I stay pretty true to what I see written on the page, and I think that’s because I was trained to read music and to sing it as I see it…Whereas Terri, she’s been in a band, and so she’s used to being able to go off and play around and do a little bit more fun stuff, and I think that’s a great combination because then we complement each other.”

But why split the role into two? And why does the story even get a narrator at all? Most musicals get along without one just fine. There are many who even argue that Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a straightforward story whose only frills come with the costumes.

Mary Beth disagrees. “It’s so complex. It’s hard for [Joseph] to tell his own story, and then you have all those brothers…so many things happen that I think the Narrator just helps bring the whole story to life in detail.” The cast for Joseph is huge, requiring those 12 brothers, their father, their wives, the children’s chorus, Pharaoh and the other Egyptian nobles…yeah, put that way, there is a lot for the Narrator to keep track of. “It’s a big role,” she acknowledges, saying that even though she and Terri are sharing the duty, there’s still plenty to do.

Caught in a whirlwind of siblings and garish clothing and flashy dance numbers, making sure the actual story gets through really is the biggest challenge. But having two people tell it isn’t just going to make it clearer, but will give the audience two different interpretations of the text to choose from. And what’s Mary Beth’s interpretation? What thread will she ask us to follow amidst the gold and the glitter? What is Joseph’s story about, exactly?

Mary Beth shifts as she thinks, adjusting her daughter’s position. “We’re bringing [Joseph] full circle,” she begins. “He looks like he’s got life by the tail because Dad buys him this magical coat, and then the brothers are so awful to him, and then Potiphar’s wife takes advantage of him…all these bad things, and he still finds a way to persevere. I think that’s real powerful, because that’s life in general. Some of us look like we’ve got it made, and there are struggles every day, and it isn’t always a victory.” But Joseph is no tragedy. After being separated by class, country, and the long passage of time, the brothers reconcile and this, Mary Beth argues, “brings them back to life…and you need each other even if it initially looks like you already had it all. It is working together to make it all happen. Because we can’t [succeed] without various parts of the world coming together for that.”

Our talk of how the Narrators take on positions of support for the story, the characters, and the audience, and the way Mary Beth speaks of working together and reaffirming family bonds, I can’t help but connect this to everything I’ve witnessed tonight: the people entering the building and passing by; actors coming earlier than necessary like they can’t wait; some waving hello to Mary Beth with excited smiles, teasing her about my presence; hearing Mary Beth joke that it’s for the New York Times without missing a beat; her daughter Hannah’s shy smiles; and the way that, when I smile back, she tucks her face into her mother’s neck so quickly her dangly gold earrings catch the sconces’ gentle glow, and reflect it back twice as bright.

Yeah, this feels a little like family.

“It’s like working as a team,” Mary Beth agrees.  “And you know what’s fun? This is my first show at FMCT. [Joseph] was fabulous in Casselton, but these folks bring different experiences to the table and it is going to be fabulous in a whole different way. I mean everybody really brings this show together. It’s just energizing, I think. And I get to be in it with my little baby girl.” She squeezes Hannah, who blushes—but squeezes back.

Mary Beth also insists that this camaraderie will come across to the audience. “They’re just going to walk away going, ‘that was awesome, even if I’ve seen it twenty times, it was awesome.’ I don’t think you want to miss it.”

As the interview has gone on, the chatter has grown louder, and the song has swelled with the addition of several more voices—and what I don’t want to be responsible for her missing is rehearsal. So I thank her and tell her to take some time before it starts. She just smiles and, warmth infusing every vowel of her soft, small town Nodak accent, “Thank you so much.”

Thank me? I’m floored. She’s the one who’s been doing all the work here, indulging my curiosity and being patient with my questions. She’s the one who took the extra time out of her day already filled with work, kids, and now rehearsal, but still she’s thanking me. I guess it makes sense considering the size of her regard for her castmates and the support she insists on giving them and the way that she sat, happily, with her daughter on her lap for the whole interview. I’ve never considered it before that Joseph might be missing a mother, and while she might be dead, at least he has Mary Beth’s Narrator on his side. To my surprise, the thought fills me with a kind of joy.

Despite the revelation, I have just enough of my faculties left to wiggle my fingers goodbye at Hannah, who hops from Mary Beth’s lap to go back inside, all shyness forgotten. As her mother follows and the duo disappear across the theatre’s threshold, I’m left with much to ponder over. This show isn’t just about Joseph climbing back up from rock bottom, nor is it just a showcase for exciting musical numbers. It’s about family: not just Joseph’s, and not just FMCT’s. This show is also for the community, and as Jeff Nibbe told me in the last interview, isn’t that what this theatre is all about? I smile to myself.

The last actors are heading inside, and I’m almost alone in the hallway. I’m packing up, thinking about the traffic, wondering what I’m going to have for dinner…but I tell you what. That smile stays with me all the way home.

See the hard work of Mary Beth Pilon and the rest of the cast and crew come to fruition in FMCT’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The show runs April 4-5 and 10-12 at 7:30pm and April 6, 12, and 13 at 2:00pm.

CLICK HERE to get your JOSEPH Tickets

Join me in a couple days as I talk to the next member of the FMCT Joseph family, choreographer Katelyn Swearingen.

Previously on “Countdown to Joseph

Part 1: Jeff Nibbe, Technical Director and Scenic Designer