Monday, October 27, 2014

Interview with Rob Hartmann and Farah Alvin of "Vanishing Point"

By Byrne Harrison

On November 4th, 54 Below will present a concert version of Rob Hartmann's musical "Vanishing Point," featuring Farah Alvin, Katie Thompson and Kate Shindle as Agatha Christie, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Amelia Earhart.  I had a chance to speak with Rob and Farah about the genesis of the show, some recent productions, and this latest version.

Rob and Farah, thank you both for taking the time to discuss your upcoming show.  First, Rob, could you tell me a little about "Vanishing Point"?

"Vanishing Point" imagines that three women, who all vanished at one point in their lives – Amelia Earhart, Agatha Christie and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson – all meet in "the vanishing point", a sort of limbo between worlds. There they replay the stories of their lives, and decide whether or not to go back. It's very funny but also very wrenching at times -- I always describe it as a high-wire act for three powerhouse actresses. As they replay their lives, the three actresses play all the additional roles -- instantly switching to play each other's mothers, husbands, reporters. Since this is a concert, we only will see a bit of that, but it's always awesome to see it in production -- the three women create everything out of nothing. It's a marathon.

What was the inspiration for this show?

When I was getting my MFA at NYU's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, my collaborator Scott Keys had a book called "Among the Missing" which was all about mysterious disappearances. He made the connection among the three women: Agatha Christie, who disappeared for 11 days in 1926; Aimee Semple McPherson, who disappeared for three weeks that same year; and Amelia Earhart, who vanished in 1937. Agatha and Aimee never spoke about what happened during their disappearances; Amelia of course was never seen again. 

He noticed that they made a natural trinity -- like mind, body, spirit. One disappeared on the road, one in the sea, and one in the sky. In our show, the opening number is called "Adventure, Spectacle, Mystery" -- the things that they brought to all our lives.

Scott wrote a one-act with another composer that was the germ of that idea (it ended up being just about Amelia Earhart). After grad school we wrote two shows, and when we were looking for an idea for our next show, I immediately jumped on "Vanishing Point." 

Some years ago I attended a staged version at Symphony Space, and there have been several productions since then.  In fact this was a particularly busy year for the show, with several productions which I understand you've attended.  Could you tell me a little bit about those?  In particular, how involved were you in the productions?  And what did the different casts and directors bring to the productions?

This year we had a production in Madrid in July, a college production in Dayton in August, and a professional production in Baltimore in September. It was great to see the show in three wildly different productions so close together. I saw all three but really wasn't involved in any of the rehearsal processes. That is a good sign -- that the show doesn't need me or my collaborators around to find its own way.

L to R - Laura González Serrano,
Isabel Fonseca Gómez, Justi Vega
Each company created its own distinctive version. In Madrid, the director Carlos Herencia designed it as an homage to silent film -- pale faces, a black and white feeling to the setting, footlights, theatrical gestures. In Dayton, director Marya Spring Cordes (directing it for the second time) used a very bare space. It was staged in a thrust, with just a few cubes, a few props, a ladder, and some very powerful projections. 

In Baltimore, director Ryan Haase dreamed it up as though it were taking place in a mysterious overstuffed attic. He did it all with natural light sources -- lamps, candles -- which gave it a dreamy shadowy feel. We talked about Alice falling down the rabbit hole -- in illustrations, she's always falling past cupboards and bookshelves and mirrors and sconces. It felt like they were falling down their own rabbit hole.

Photo by Spencer Grundler
Each production was completely different, yet they each found the truth of the piece. It's about discovering your passion, and the difficulty of following that passion when the world makes its inevitable demands on you. Each of the women is almost destroyed by following her calling -- but they return to the world stronger.

I'm particularly interested in the one in Madrid.  Did you work directly with the translators?  And what was the reaction of the Spanish audiences?

Isabel Fonseca Gómez
Isabel Fonseca Gomez, whose theater company produced it (and who played Aimee Semple McPherson, brilliantly), did the translation along with Carlos Herencia, the director. I believe they split the work between them -- Carlos I think did Agatha's patter songs (god bless him.)  I know enough Spanish to understand it in performance. I had a multi-lingual friend come with me and he said the translation got the spirit exactly. With a lot of the patter songs, they kept the rhythm and didn't worry about trying to translate exactly. Agatha has a song called "Red Herrings" in which she comes up with a cover story for each of the women when they're ready to return to the world. There isn't an exact translation of that in Spanish, but they have that concept -- it was called "Sin Pistas" ("Without Clues.")

The Spanish audiences really seemed to love it. The audiences were very energized by it -- there was always a crowd in the street outside the theater talking about it after the performance.

And what about the other productions?  Well received?

The college production in Dayton ran for just a weekend -- I went out to see two of the performances. The college audiences were screaming their heads off for the trio of actresses -- seeing their friends take on these huge roles and pull them off wonderfully. Even though those actresses were all young for the parts (the characters were all late 30s at the time of their disappearances), they brought a real sense of power to the show. Each one of those three found sharp, specific moments that I had never seen done in exactly that way before. They made it their own.

The Baltimore production, produced by a young theater company called Stillpointe Theatre Initiative, got some of the best reviews the show has ever gotten. The three actresses in that production are all members of the company, and they happen to all be good friends. You could tell they had an immense amount of trust in one another -- which you need for this show!  

Can you tell me a little bit about the actresses you've had involved in the show in the past?  It's a pretty illustrious group.

I have been really fortunate to have had so many great performers give their time and talents to develop this show over the years. We've been working on it quite a while -- it's had ten full productions over the years, along with workshops and readings. 

Alison Fraser did one of the first concerts of the show, playing Agatha Christie (she also sang on the demo recording we have.) It was one of those experiences where you hear someone sing a number and it sounds so distinctive that it's like a cast recording. She has been an amazing supporter of the show. Nancy Opel and Ann Morrison also did very early readings.

For Amelia Earhart, some of the actresses who have taken on the part in some way or another include Julia Murney, Barbara Walsh, Lynne Wintersteller, Cristin Hubbard and Leenya Rideout. Our Aimees have included Emily Skinner, Klea Blackhurst and Sally Wilfert.

Patty Nieman has had the distinction of playing two different roles in the show. She was our original Agatha in the first Minneapolis workshop; in 2012, we had a production in Florida in which our Amelia lost her voice and couldn't continue with the run. On literally a day's notice, Patty agreed to come in. She flew in on a Monday, and by Wednesday was on in the role. It was astounding.

So tell me a little about the actresses in this latest production?  How did you choose this cast, and what was it about this combination of actresses that seemed to complement your show?

I'm always interested in seeing what actors bring to the role -- each performer who takes on these parts shapes them in their own way. Farah, in fact, did a one-day reading of the piece (playing Aimee.) We were doing a reading that was basically testing out a new song for the top of Act II. Farah was traveling between New York and LA -- she basically said, I'm insane to try to fit this in, but I want to give it a shot. I sent her the new song to look at -- the only one we really needed her to sing -- but I included the other songs that Aimee sings, just so she would have some context.

That day in the read-through, we got to one of Aimee's songs, and Farah nonchalantly said, "Oh, let me just give it a try," and proceeded to blow us all away. Farah is like that. She has an incredible force to her -- and is one of the most down-to-earth people you'd ever meet.

All three of these women are forces of nature in their own right. I've known Katie Thompson more or less since she moved to New York from LA. She comes and does readings of new work for us at NYU whenever she can -- and of course she's always incredible. I've thought of her in the role of Aimee Semple McPherson for a long time. If anyone could convert you to her own personal religion, I think it would be Katie.

I haven't worked with Kate Shindle before, but of course have seen her everywhere. Besides her Broadway outings, she turns up often in concerts of new work. She is always clear and specific in her performances -- I had had her in mind for Amelia for quite a while too. There's something interesting to me about Kate's personal knowledge of being an American icon -- as Miss America -- brought to the role of Amelia. In Vanishing Point, we see more of Amelia's driven, high-strung side -- we see all the pressure she was under to live up to a manufactured image. I think Kate can understand that.

We met over e-mail last year when I was trying to put a different concert of Vanishing Point together (which didn't ultimately work out for scheduling reasons.) I sent Kate two of Amelia's songs to listen to. She went to the show's website and listened to all the material on her own -- not just the two songs but the entire score. Who does that? Nobody. For someone to take that time to research the project carefully -- it told me that she's someone who cares very much about which shows she chooses to appear in.

Which brings us to the amazing Farah Alvin.  How did you come to be involved in this production?

Rob has been a friend through working at NYU. A few years ago, (maybe 2008?) Rob had been doing some rewrites and asked if I would come in and cold read the role of Aimee. She has a very difficult song called "The Heat" and Rob said,"It's really difficult. Just read the lyrics, don't worry about singing it. I just want to hear it in context." But I had already learned it by the time he told me that! I think I may have done some recording of Aimee material as well. So now that I'm playing Agatha, it's a totally new experience.

What is it like playing Agatha?  Do you find there are things about her that resonate with you?

I love that what Agatha feels very confident about is her intelligence and creativity. She feels strong about her intellectual abilities and her vulnerabilities are aggravated by her inability to understand them. I can relate to feeling power in creativity. And wanting to rely on logic to solve emotional problems, even when you know, logically, that's unlikely to work. I love that Rob and Liv and Scott have chosen three dynamic and smart women to theatricalize. That's rare. And special.

I've always been interested in how an actor prepares for a role.  Do you have a particular approach?

I would love to tell you that I do lots of research and learn what Agatha Christie ate for breakfast. But the truth is, I am not playing the actual Agatha. I am playing the version of her that these writers have envisioned. So I have to base my character on the the elements the writers have presented. For this piece, I'm trying to find action that gets me invested. So I'm thinking about, if Agatha was responsible for her own vanishing, what hurt so much that she had to literally disappear? Or if not hurt, frightened, angered? That's my loop in to finding emotional truth in a character who is abstracted here.

And how has it been working with Kate and Katie?

I haven't actually been in the room with them yet! This is what happens when you try and compile a cast of busy ladies. But I know both Katie and Kate and have worked with them both multiple times. They are smart, amazing actresses and PERFECT for the parts they have been cast in. I'm really looking forward to singing with them. I think it's going to be pretty thrilling.

Going back to Rob for a moment, what is your favorite thing about this production?

I think just bringing this incredible group of actors together, along with our music director, Gillian Berkowitz. Gillian has worked on the show for a long time, and brings an incredible musical depth to the piece. In this concert we also have cello and clarinet -- a treat because so often you can only have piano. Gillian can play anything -- and her musical instincts are always right on. I'm actually right in the middle of adjusting one of the orchestrations with feedback from Gillian -- she calls me in her spare minute between shows -- and leaves a voicemail with sixty seconds of brilliant insight.

Farah, what about you?  Is there something in particular that stands out for you?

I love the theatricality of "Vanishing Point." I love the idea that maybe these three ladies all went to the same place to work out their stuff. And relied on one another and learned from one another. It's kind of a brilliant use of the device of a musical. It takes a mysterious story, three mysterious stories and explores an implausible but totally magical explanation. That's cool.

What else is coming up for you this year?

This year is nearly over which I can't believe. I had a baby this year so the fact that I'm performing at all right now is sort of surreal. But right around the corner in 2015, I am performing with the Naples Symphony, the Omaha Symphony and the Phoenix Symphony. Concerts and other projects are always popping up. People can keep up with me on my website, my Facebook fan page and on Twitter. If anything new happens, it'll all be there!

Rob, what about you?

I've got a few things cooking in the early stages -- one project I'm having a lot of fun with is writing a show for high school performers, with my collaborator Katie Kring. It's called Kelly the Destroyer Vs the Springfield Cobras, and is like Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets '70s glam rock.

And what about Vanishing Point?  What is next for the show?

Now that we've been polishing it in various productions around the country (and the world), I really want to do it in New York in some way. So what's next is, we're making that happen.

So here is the lightning round.  Five questions for each of you.

Farah, favorite show you've been in?  

"Sycamore Trees" by Ricky Ian Gordon, world premiere at Signature Theatre in DC in 2010.

Rob, best show you've seen this year?

You know, I really liked Rocky. And so far I have been really behind in seeing the shows that have opened this fall. I have a long list of must-sees.

Farah, favorite song in "Vanishing Point"?

I love "When I Am the Wind" (Amelia's song).

Rob, actor or actress you'd most like to work with, but haven't yet?

That is a tough question. Hmmm.... I don't know how this would come about, but let's say Angela Lansbury. I was obsessed with "Bedknobs & Broomsticks" as a child, so...

Farah, role you'd most like to play someday?

Mrs. Lovett.

Rob, first show you ever saw?

My first Broadway show was the original production of "Into the Woods," which I saw the day after Christmas, a month after it opened. I thought, "a whole month, I hope some of the original cast is still in it..." because when you're in college, running a month seems like a very long time. I flew to New York for one day in order to see it.

Farah, next show you want to see?

I gotta hustle and see "Here Lies Love"!

Rob, favorite theatre you've worked in?

I have to cheat and give two answers. One is, Porchlight Music Theatre in Chicago. That theater was founded by Jill Moore, one of my roommates in college -- and it's still going strong all these years later. They have produced three of my shows, including the first-ever staging of "Vanishing Point." I have great memories of Chicago, putting on shows in the basement of a bar. They are close to my heart.

The second answer is -- the theater where "Vanishing Point" played in Madrid, Teatro Lara. It's a gorgeous grand old-school theater -- all red and gold, velvet curtains, gorgeous murals. You really felt a sense of history there.

Farah, favorite theatre experience?

Martha Clarke's "Garden of Earthly Delights." Two minutes into the revival, I leaned over to my husband and said, "This is the greatest show I've ever seen in my life." And it was.

Rob, same question.

I have too many to list. I teach at NYU's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, and am privileged to be able to see incredible new works of theater being created each year. Watching the performances of those, I regularly cry like a sap. Because there's so much passion in everyone who is working in this art form. It makes you fully alive.

Thank you both for your time, and I'm looking forward to seeing "Vanishing Point" next week.

"Vanishing Point" will be performed at 54 Below on Tuesday, November 4th at 9:30 PM.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the 54 Below website.

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