With City of Angels heating up the Ruth N. Halls this week, who better to talk with than the man behind the magic, Director Richard Roland!
What do you do at IU, and why do you do it?
I am an Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre, and I teach acting in both sung and spoken text. I also teach musical theatre form and analysis and musical theatre history. I am especially fascinated by how our history as a country is represented on the musical stage, and how what’s happening on the musical stage in turn influences our culture! I have to pass on this knowledge. It just isn’t enough to be a good singer, actor, and dancer. To be a successful theatre artist, one needs to know the cultural context of whatever piece they’re working on; knowing the history and reasons why a piece came into existence is just as important. The thoughtful actor is the successful one.
When did first you realize you were a theatre geek?
I don’t think it was a singular moment, but rather a series of events. I was raised in a theatrical family: both my parents had enjoyed successful Broadway careers, and I grew up around theatre people. I remember watching variety shows on TV in the early 1970s and being captivated by the dance numbers. I remember my mother taking me out of kindergarten one afternoon to see a rerelease matinee of “Singin’ in the Rain” at the Ziegfeld Theatre and I knew I had to do something like what those beautiful people were doing on the screen. Then my parents took me to see my first Broadway show – the 1974 revival of Gypsy starring Angela Lansbury – and I was hooked. Because of the scene in which Baby June and Louise “grow into” Dainty June and Louise through the use of dance and strobe lights, my 5 year old brain thought they were literally growing up on stage, and I thought that was the magic of the theatre. We went backstage afterwards since my parents knew a lot of the cast and crew, and I remember walking across the stage and thinking how odd and alien a place it was, but that I had to be a part of it. It’s an incredibly pretentious thing to write, but I was convinced I could feel a different, heightened energy when I walked onto the Winter Garden stage that night. Hooked ever since.
What is your favorite thing about the theatre, and why?
My favorite thing about the theatre is that it’s always larger than life. It allows artists to think big and to BE big. We don’t go to theatre to see the normal, the everyday. Even in “slice of life” plays, there’s something bigger happening on stage – the drama of it makes it large. We even use the word “dramatic” to describe someone’s larger-than-life behavior. Film is the realm of realism/naturalism. Stage is the realm of heightened reality!
What do you do outside of your theatre endeavors?
Food and travel! Cooking is therapy, and travel is always a privilege and an adventure. My husband and I travel as much as we can, and when we can take our two Labrador Retrievers with us, it’s even better. We have a small cabin on a lake in Ontario, Canada which is our quiet place.
What have you learned in your first year here at IU?
Working on City of Angels with students who were not yet born when the show premiered on Broadway, and to most of whom the heightened world of film noir is quite foreign, or completely unknown, has been an education to me in that they are absorbing the style very quickly. In this case, the noir style has to be heightened in its own way, but then to put it on stage is only to heighten it even more. Not only have I urged them to watch films like The Big Sleep (1946), Double Indemnity (1944), and The Maltese Falcon (1941) (from all of which City of Angels borrows heavily), but other period dramas and comedies like Mildred Pierce (1945), The Women (1939), and His Girl Friday (1940) just to understand how snappy dialogue and witty repartee are handled! It occurred to me that they are actually learning another technique: how to handle a period piece. Learning how to land a punchline old-school style, or obey the rhythm of smart aleck banter is just as valuable as learning how to handle the rhythms, whether solo or in back-and-forth, in Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. One cast member said in rehearsal, “So it’s like an Aaron Sorkin script, just set in 1948,” and I was so impressed that his generation knew a writer with whom they could identify this style! Interestingly enough, the City of Angels libretto was written by Hollywood’s master craftsman of quips Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H, Three’s Company, Tootsie).
When no one is watching, what song do you love to dance or sing along with?
There are so many, but I will always groove along with Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” and Robbie Neville’s “C’est La Vie.” Yes, I hit my teens in the 1980s.
Who in the theatre world inspires you, and why?
Boiling that down is nearly impossible, so I’ll have to throw out some names and condensed reasons! Matthew Warchus because of how he directs with kindness and clarity. Hal Prince because he took so many risks which resulted in tremendous successes and spectacular failures. Judith Ivey because she is always the kind of actor I want to be. Tony Stevens because he could make anyone feel good on stage. Kathy Fitzgerald for making outrageous choices on stage. Sutton Foster for her leadership and professionalism. My father for his encouragement, support, and his sharp, honest, and unclouded perspective on show business.
Do you have any words of advice for new theatre students?
Persistence. Training. Resilience. Training. Knowledge. Training. See the world. See the country. Taste everything. See everything. Training. Kindness.
What exciting projects do you have coming up?
Once City of Angels opens, I go right to work preparing for rehearsals for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin for IU Summer Theatre. We’re in the process of finishing casting, and we’ll start rehearsals in June. I’ve worked on the show before, and I look forward to getting back into it! I have a couple of small projects in New York that I have to keep developing, so part of my summer travel will include that!
You can enjoy Rich’s first IU production, City of Angels, now through Saturday, April 21st in the Ruth N. Halls Theatre! Tickets and information at theatre.indiana.edu.