This interview is a change of pace from other interviews in which we talk to actors who have leading roles in a production. In this interview we wanted to feature a group of people who tend to be overlooked by audiences – the ensemble. In this article we want to celebrate the silent heroes of theatre, the ensemble, the people who really make shows thrive. In this interview we spoke with Joey Abramowicz, Casey Elizabeth Gill, Maria Konstantinidis and Sean Thompson, all who are members of Walnut Street Theatre’s production of South Pacific.
What I was most struck by from this group is their passion for this show, as well as their camaraderie with each other. They all exuded enthusiasm when they spoke about the production of South Pacific and when they talked about being a member of the ensemble. In addition, Joey Abramowicz, Casey Elizabeth Gill, Maria Konstantinidis and Sean Thompson spoke with me about the relevance of South Pacific in 2016, as well as the research they did and what it is like being in the ensemble of this show.
Kelli Curtin: Could you tell me about South Pacific?
Joey Abramowicz: It is a musical classic.
Sean Thompson: It’s a great, old-fashioned musical.
Maria Konstantinidis: It is a wonderful love story.
Casey Elizabeth Gill: It is a show that applies to all ages as well. Young people who love musical theatre will love the show because it is a great musical, and older audiences will love it for the story, and how this story still is relevant today.
Kelli: Let’s address the importance of the show a bit more. The show opened on Broadway in 1949. Do you feel this show is still relevant in 2016?
Sean: I feel as if it is more relevant with the race issues in the country today. It is a musical in which the story’s central conflict is related to a person who cannot accept the fact that a white man was married to someone who was not white. That really is the conflict of the show. With everything going on in the country it brings the question up – why would marrying someone of a different race be something a person would be concerned about?
Maria: It both supports and undermines the concept that it is racial. We tend to focus as we should on America since we live here – this is our country, our home. However, at the same time this racial tension happens all over the world, between races, in every country. So, it does support the idea that yes, there is a prejudice, and you have to be taught in some way that racism is a real thing. But, racial prejudices is not unique to our current society. I think there is both disappointment and identification that this is not a situation that is new or unique to the United States. So, this leads us to some form of hope that collectively we can overcome this racial prejudice.
Sean: The show is an epic romance. It is such an epic story; I think in that South Pacific can serve as an escapist type of piece. In our contemporary culture of cynicism and sarcasm, in which no one really connects anymore unless it is via text message, these two couples are so desperately in love with each other, in such a grand way, that I think experiencing this is a fresh way at looking at how people connect.
Casey: This musical is unique in that the couples just don’t immediately fall in love and experience some sort of trivial story line. This show portrays that to truly accept somebody you must love them flaws and all. It shows that what Nellie sees as a flaw is a constant theme throughout the play; Nellie is more upset with the fact that his children are multi-ethnic instead of the fact that he murdered someone, this is what she sees as Emile’s flaw. It is difficult for Nellie to accept and love his children. South Pacific can be seen as a realistic love story where the issues that occur are things that people still encounter in 2016. The racism depicted in the show is something that continues to be relevant for the past 60+ years, as well as the love story that even though it is not perfect, they can still find a way to come together in the end.
Maria: Going off what Casey just said, it is a story that is beautiful because it does not end with Nellie going back home. Even Lt. Cable who is flawed redeems himself at the end. There is this theme in South Pacific that while the prejudices exist, we are able to overcome them – perfect love drives out fear.
Kelli: What can audiences expect when coming to see the show?
Sean: A great score. Rogers and Hammerstein really knew how to just tug at those heart strings with the music. The emotion is in the intervals of the music.
Casey: South Pacific has been my favorite show since I was tiny. When I was little, my parents used to put music from records onto tapes for me. My favorite tape has songs from South Pacific on it, I used to listed to “Honey Bun,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.” I found this music so influential, and I remember thinking I am going to be in this show someday. Sean and I were standing together when the orchestra came the first day, and when they started playing the overture it was overpowering. Sean is understudying Lt. Cable and I am understudying Nellie, and we would listen to the music from scenes we were not even in, and listed to Emile’s song "This Nearly Was Mine,” and be emotionally moved by the music. All this music strikes such a chord with us.
Joey: It’s cool that I have been in a lot of contemporary musicals at the Walnut over the last few years. The first preview night we had of South Pacific, when we finished singing “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” the energy that came from the specific audience that was in attendance that night was overwhelming. The exhilaration we felt from the audience after that number was something I have not experienced in a while. South Pacific is a classic and audiences know the show, so they are excited to hear and see this show, and the way it is being done here.
Maria: For me, it is an epic story. Even to this day there is still so much to learn from the history surrounding World War II, so to be zooming into a snippet of these lives is pretty profound.
Sean: To go off that, we are not talking about the Germans at all, it is a different snapshot about a completely different part of the war. I also find it interesting that the show is about inactivity, we do not go to war until the very last scene of the show. The show is about sitting around and waiting. Historically, when people think of World War II they think of the Germans and the Holocaust, but this show is about the South Pacific.
Kelli: Since South Pacific takes place in a real place and a historical time period, how do you portray your roles realistically? Also, what type of research did you do?
Casey: This war was not that long ago. I find that there are people in the audience who were in World War II, and this show strikes a chord with them. We are giving as much of a realistic interpretation of this part of life during the War as we can. Our director, Chuck Abbott, wanted us to bring individual personas to each of our characters, whether we were leads or ensemble. We bring personality to each person, so when people from the audience look at us they are not just looking at a broad picture of what it might have looked like during the war in the South Pacific, but be able to look at someone in the ensemble and relate to how they are acting or identify that this is how they acted when they served in the War. Every action and everything we say has to be within the customs of this period, but every single character has their own personality and nuances.
Maria: Part of our job is to research the time period and the characters we are playing even If they are not the main focus of the show. We would not be doing our job if we did not understand the time and place the show is about. I am passionate and really feel with any ensemble that it is your job to research and portray a role accurately to create the story. Granted, there are many times that this does not always happen in an ensemble, but this particular cast has really been able to create a realistic interpretation of this period.
I also think it is important to call out our choreographer, Michelle Gaudette. She is rare because she is so story driven and cares for the story always. She leads the choreography with the intention in mind that she keeps with the story and the accuracy of the story.
Sean: What is amazing about this ensemble in particular is that they are an amazing group of actors; some of the people in this group are also leading actors in the area. So, these people are driven and focused because this is what they do. This show does not have people in the show whose main purpose is to just entertain and give a pretty number, there is heart and sound behind each person in this show. Everyone in this show is creating a world that realistically portrays this time period. The source material also helps in a show like this. The musical is based on a great novel where there are specific snapshots of the people from the time. Whereas in contemporary musicals like Ghost: The Musical there is not the historical storyline to learn from. The book from South Pacific gives us very specific characterizations on how to speak, etc.
Joey: I am primarily hired in an ensemble role all the time. That has mostly been my career. I am looked at as a dancer first. I was hired for South Pacific as a dancer and gymnast first. For someone like me, I have to work that much harder in the room when we first started to prove I am more than a dance/gymnast. I find I work physically first, I always have to find the movement of the roles I am playing first. It is a great show in the fact that the guys have a good twenty minutes onstage where it is a lot of reacting to what the scene is and each other. I still find things I did not notice throughout the show. It is so frustrating to hear people say things like “They are just and ensemble member” or “They just have to appear onstage.” It is offending because being in the ensemble is what my career is, and we all work really hard even if it is not the leading role.
Kelli: What is it like being part of the ensemble?
Joey: It is the hardest job of any show you are in. You are playing multiple roles and you have to work incredibly hard because you always have to bring a lot of energy and personality to the production.
When you rehearse a show, especially regionally, you have two weeks basically to get the show up and ready for an audience. A majority of those two weeks are spent setting it – making sure everyone knows where they are going, where they are standing, what the dance steps are, what the notes are. In that time frame I feel that direction is given to principal actors, so members of the ensemble are left to see the blue print of what the show is or what the scene is, and it is up to us to figure out how to make the scene come more alive. For me personally, I have played a lot of marines, sailors and army men. When I play these parts I always reflect on the role, because my grandfather did fight in World War II. I always feel like I am playing him a little bit with all these different roles, and I think about what his life was like before he went to fight in the War.
As someone who is usually in the ensemble, I get little recognition. I think people tend to overlook the members of the ensemble, and we are seldom recognized. It always seems the leads in the show get the recognition, and people forget how hard everyone in the show works. The great thing about South Pacific is that I get to be in the ensemble, but I get to act and create characters that are imperative to the story.
Maria: This is a great point to bring up – one person, one of the leads, comes out of the door and that person gets a lot of attention. Whereas the rest of the people get very little attention. Every time I have had the best experience in a musical I will look back and remember I was in the ensemble. I have had the privilege to lead in musicals as well as be in the ensemble in other shows. There is something so special about being in the ensemble. It is a different experience, but is no less important to have. In the same way as with a bicycle, you have wheels, but you also need a chain for it to work. In musicals, just like the bike, we all need to function together, we are all integral for the show to work.
Casey: You are the constant life of the show. Everyone leaves the shows specifically talking about the costumes or the scenery, but what they forget to think about is what made all that come to life? The answer to that is the large number of people on the stage. What makes the show a beautiful show is the people who fill the stage and they keep the show moving forward. A musical is not just about individuals the story is based on, but it is all the people who push the story through.
Sean: I want to bring this back to the function of the ensemble and why it is such an integral thing – what I was thinking about is a movie for a point of comparison. Think of a movie like The Great Gatsby. When people think of that movie they think of the extravagant parties. You have Leonardo DiCaprio in the film, playing Jay Gatsby, but you need to know what Jay’s life is like. The only way to understand that is to have extravagant parties with specific people at those parties. When you see the men and women at the parties with the champagne and they are doing bizarre things in the corner that is how people understand the world of Jay Gatsby. The ensemble is the party – we provide the context for the show. The ensemble’s job is creating the world of the musical or play for the audience. The ensemble gives the audience an in to what the environment of the show is like.
Maria: The majesty of that too is that in my life, I have my husband, my mother, my sister, who are the major influences of my life, they play the major roles. However, there are people who are weaved in who I may not know as well, but they played some sort of role in my life that was profound. So, the ensemble is a parallel to life in general – there are big roles, but there are smaller roles that are just as significant even if they are not onstage as frequently.
Joey: What I think is really cool about being in the ensemble is finding out what other people’s story lines are. For example, Jennie Eisenhower, plays this person who hates being part of the follies in act two. You can just see on her face how her character hates putting on the costumes and dancing in front of the men. It is amazing to see this because that is not written in the script, but she came up with that. It is amazing to be able to create things like that as well as interact with other people in this way. This is just a really great show to be part of the ensemble. I will cherish moments of this production forever.
Kelli: Why do you think live theatre is important?
Joey: There is literally no other art form where you can sit quietly for over two hours with other people in silence and have an experience like that. That experience is unique to those people in that theatre at that specific time because the next day it will be an entirely different experience for those people seeing the show. Live theatre is something our society takes for granted. As a society we are obsessed with our phones, and forget about human connection.
Sean: It is imperative as individuals that we have something we can look at and assure ourselves that there are other people that have gone through what we go through every day. Live theatre is therapeutic and cathartic in that way. Without live theatre, people are a lone island thinking their neuroses, problems and tribulations are just theirs alone, and no one could possibly know what it feels like to be in their shoes. When people go and see a show they can connect and relate and it creates empathy and it is a way to connect to art. Theatre assures people that they are human and they have problems just like everyone else.
Casey: One of the most important things in any form of human gathering whether through sports, theatre or whatever it is that you are attracted to, there is this beauty of connecting. With a movie you can try over and over to get that perfect take, and maybe one out of a hundred is great, whoever watches it months later, after lots of editing, can say yes, that was cool, and they pause it and watch the scene over again. Yet, when you see a live production that one moment can come out differently every time, and whoever is in the audience is different. It is a collective experience that changes for each performance. That moment when an audience connects with a show is unique every time. As an actor, to have the responsibility to create human connectivity through live theatre, even though you do not know who you will necessarily influence, is a beautiful responsibility, and I am lucky to be able to do that.
Maria: I love this quote from John Adams, and it is one of my favorite quotes, and it answers this question. “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” [Quote is from a letter John wrote to his wife Abigail May 12, 1780.] This quote is not necessarily saying it is a luxury, but it is saying that as a culture becomes more refined and as we leave the things of war and base necessities behind we hope society builds towards the Arts – it is something to be reached, not something to be thrown away.
Thank you to Joey Abramowicz, Casey Elizabeth Gill, Maria Konstantinidis and Sean Thompson for taking the time to speak with us about South Pacific. They can be seen in South Pacific at Walnut Street Theatre through October 23, 2016. For more information and tickets visit their website at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or call the box office at 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787.
Kelli Curtin is founding editor and writer for theatresensation.com. In addition, she is a contributor for the online site broadwayworld.com. Kelli is excited to share her passion about theatre and the Arts with her readers. Kelli can be found on Twitter, Facebook and on Instagram.
Photos courtesy of Walnut Street Theatre