Currently onstage at the Fulton Theatre is Footloose, a musical that is based on the 1984 film of the same name. The musical is a high-energy production that not only is fun to watch, but there is an aspect of the show that delves into the emotional aspect of the story, which gives this production a lot of heart. Footloose tells the story of Ren McCormick, a free-spirited teen who has a passion for dancing. Dancing is also the way Ren expresses himself. Ren and his mother live in Chicago, but his father has left them, and they must move to Bomont, Texas. Bomont is a small town in which dancing has been outlawed. Ren is befriended by a group of people who have a lot of personality. This group of four friends, Ren, Ariel, Rusty and Willard all rebel and try to find a way to bring dancing and joy back to the town of Bomont.
I had the pleasure of speaking with the four fine actors who play the roles of Ren, Ariel, Rusty and Willard. All four of them shared with me their passion and enthusiasm for being in this musical as well as explaining how they hope people get as much joy from watching this show as they do performing in it. They spoke with me about the show, their characters, developing friendships on and off stage and what they hope audiences take away from the show.
Kelli Curtin: Could you tell me about the show, Footloose? What can audiences expect?
Neil Starkenberg: The show is a big dance party, it is funny and it has a lot of heart. As a cast, we really strive to give it as much heart as possible. This is a show that definitely can resonate with a lot of people. If people just want to come and be entertained and jam they can, and if they want to come see a great show they can; Footloose is all of these things. Audiences will see a lot of great talent on the stage. The show is definitely like the movie, just without Kevin Bacon.
Katie Bates: When I think of Footloose, I am guilty of thinking that it is fluffy and nothing too deep. I have only seen it done at one other place, and I remember that there was a lot of dancing, but I do not remember much else about the show. However, the way we are doing it at the Fulton brings to light that there is so much heart to this show. The characters in this show are real people, they have character costumes and are fictitious, but these are people that feel real things and that are relatable to the audience. The characters go through real life and emotional events, and people can identify with these characters.
David J. Wiens: Footloose is the story of a community in a small town and the way they deal with loss. There is a lot of fun and a lot of joy in how they overcome that loss. Also, there is a lot of real and honest emotion that comes through in the show in the way in which characters are dealing with obstacles in their path. These characters are dealing with some touching emotions, and accepting and recovering from their loss is necessary because they have to move on to become whole again. I think that the way the community becomes whole and at peace is really wonderful and really affecting to the audiences who have seen it so far.
Kelli: Could each of you tell me about your characters?
Neil: I play Ren McCormack, and I truly love Ren because it is almost a mirror image of me. He is a smart-aleck, but he also has a lot of heart. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, but he tries not to dig too deep into them because his dad left him and his mom. Ren has a lot of underlying emotion and anger that does not really get touched on until the very end. In addition, Ren loves to dance, and I also love to dance and sing, so playing Ren is a dream role, playing this role is a dream come true for me.
I think these characters are real. Audiences will know these people and they have seen these type of characters in their own lives. They are true archetypes you have seen in your life. It is really cool to see the characters in this show come to life, and see that they are so relatable to the audience.
Liz Schmitz: I play Ariel Moore, and I really like her. I am so different from her, but there are aspects of her that I can really relate to. She is so fiery and spontaneous and emotionally driven. All this has been really exciting to tap into and find within myself. Trying to find that fire within myself has been exciting.
Katie: I always feel so lucky with the roles that I get because they are so fun. Also, where Neil and Liz have a lot of backstory to their characters Ren and Ariel that comes through from the writing in the script. However, the character I play, Rusty, I could pretty much do what I wanted with her, and make her who I wanted her to be. I did not try and base her off the original movie character. I looked at the text, and found a lot of my character through working with David (Willard) and the way we interacted. I feel like I discover new things about my character every night. I feel like I can never solidify who she is as a character, and I love that because it keeps every performance fresh. As a cast, we have so much fun, and new things happen onstage every night that really help keep this show fresh.
I remember hearing Marc [Robin] say that he wants Footloose to be a production in which I can watch the girl or boy in school, and follow their whole journey throughout the show. I want to be able to watch “School Kid # 5” and have them be interesting, and have a name, a backstory – what do they want, what are they trying to get out of life. This show is not just about the characters who sing the solos, everyone on that stage has a story that they are telling even if audiences look for it or not. Every character in this show has a purpose on that stage.
David: I play Willard and he is what would happen if Tow Mater from the movie, Cars, was a person. And, he is a lot of fun. Willard is essentially the stereotypical hick, and knowing that about him was a fun place to start. The ensemble of the piece really brought out the rest of it. I found a lot of the character in my directions. For example, like Katie said previously, I found out a lot about my character through working with the rest of the cast. We are blessed in having a much longer rehearsal period than I feel most regional shows get. Through this longer rehearsal period we had a chance to get to know each other well, and work through the scenes deeply. We delved in on the acting of the piece. It has been great. I feel as if I started from a comedy first place with the character, and we found a very deeply connected world with the characters in the show. It has been a lot of fun, and finding the connection between the characters makes it more fun for us as actors to play because we get to play off of each other. Willard gets to follow his best friend and love of his life, Rusty, around onstage for two hours. He is a lot of fun to play.
Kelli: All of you play a group of friends in the show. What is your relationship to each other in Footloose?
Neil: When Ren appears he immediately develops a friendship with Willard. Willard appears to be a big bear who tries to be tough, but I can see right through that act. Ren finds that he wants to be friends with Willard from our first scene together when I bump into him. Each scene after that I have with either Ariel or Rusty. Everyone helps Ren along in this new place he is living in Bomont, so the friendships between us develop onstage through each performance.
Liz: Ariel, Rusty and Willard all grew up in Bomont. Rusty and Ariel have mothers who are good friends, so naturally in a small town they become good friends. That is just the nature of living in a small town, whoever your parents are friends with is who you become friends with.
In the show, people will really see how Ren develops relationships will all of us.
David: The reverend and his wife kind of take care of Willard. It is clear from the way that he talks that his parents have not really raised him. So, since the reverend and his wife, Vi, take care of Willard he becomes the third member of this little group with Ariel and Rusty. Willard fell in love with Rusty at the age of three, and never looked back.
Kelli: You all seem to have great chemistry onstage. Did you know each other before this show?
Liz: Katie and I were in Sister Act at the Fulton together. During Sister Act Katie and I found out we were cast in Footloose on our way up to start the show. We were in the stairwell talking about it, and were really emotional when we found out we were both cast in Footloose. So, Katie and I have a great friendship off stage. We met both Neil and David in this contract for Footloose.
This business is small, so the fact we really did not know a bunch of people in this cast, including Neil and David, was really exciting because that does not happen very often. We all are great friends off stage as well, so that makes this show special for us.
Kelli: Footloose is a high energy show. What was it like to get used to the high-energy necessary for this production?
Neil: You have to pace yourself. Marc really has a gift for letting the cast get a grip on the character and then get a grip on the show, and then meld those two things together, so you are equal in both those things. The show is a beast, but you just have to pace yourself and make it work.
Liz: This is my first professional role, so I am used to being in the ensemble where you have each other to lean on. In playing Ariel it is a bit of a different dynamic because now the people that I have to lean on are my scene partners. It can be difficult when they are your scene partners and you are supposed to dislike their character onstage. The connection onstage to who is supporting you becomes really important in a role like this. I rely heavily on the actors who play my girlfriends in the show, especially when we are doing the song, “Hero.”
Katie: When I found out I was going to be playing the role of Rusty, I was terrified. I never have played a role where I felt I had to rely on my voice so much. The song, “Let’s Hear it for the Boy,” is the big and award-winning song of the show. I feel the pressure when I am performing this number. I never have classified myself as a singer, I have always thought of myself as a performer. I love the comedic roles because you can put on a funny voice when you sing, you can make people laugh and you do not have to be the best dancer. Knowing I had to perform this huge number really scared me because it was so outside my comfort zone compared to what I was used to doing. However, now when I do this number I find it is not just a song about singing, it is about Rusty professing her love for Willard and I learned that it does not have to be a Whitney Huston performance. “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” is more about storytelling than about singing. I think the reason this song scared me so much was because I thought I had to be a singer and not an actress, but I found that it is all about telling a story and having fun while telling this story.
David: For me, a lot of my energy comes from Katie because most of my scenes are with her. The wonderful thing about the Fulton audiences is that they are always very present, and they have been reacting really well to the show. I have come up with some dumb jokes, that really is just me saying some words wrong, but the audience responds and laughs every time. Each time I hear the audience laugh I feel like I can keep going. I mostly play clown parts, which has been a lot of my career, I live for the laughter and I am grateful that the audience has responded positively to the show. I would take laughter over applause any day, the audience’s response is what energizes us on the stage.
Kelli: Is there something you hope audiences take away from this show?
Neil: I am hoping we can make the audience forget their troubles whatever they may be for the few hours while they are watching Footloose. People can watch a fun show and be immersed in this world of theatre for a while. This is why we do it, we go to the theatre to have a great time, and we hope that the audience gets as much joy from seeing the show as we do from performing in the show.
Liz: My favorite day at the Fulton is when we have the interpreters. When I did Joseph at the Fulton, it was the first time I had seen a significant amount of deaf people in the audience, at the end of the performance instead of hearing applause I saw all these hands in the air (how members of the audience who are Deaf applaud.) For me, it was really special to see that, and eye opening for me. I realized at that moment that you never know who will be in the audience or how they will be affected by the production.
Katie: Marc told us that he wanted people to leave this show and go call their parents or someone who is close to them and have a new feeling of wanting to be with their family and feel love for their family. We want this show to inspire people and to make them feel something, and to realize that even though they are still going to have disagreements or differing opinions from their family, the bottom line is that what it all comes down to is love, family and community. The fact that we get to be onstage and inhabit these characters and have members of the audience leave at the end of the show being inspired or affected by the show is an amazing thing.
David: Part of our message at the end of the show is that in times of grief there is no path forward that involves pushing people away. In order to deal with grief you have to bring people in, you have to open your arms and be welcoming, kind and accepting of different ideas from people. I think in today’s society and after the shooting in Orlando this is a message that is very important. I think we need to find a way to be the most opening and welcome we can. I love that this show pushes the idea that dealing with loss is not about closing yourself off and living in sadness while dealing with difficult situations by yourself; to deal with grief you have to bring people in. You have to open your arms and be welcoming and kind, and accepting of different ideas and people. I think right now that is a message that is very important. We need to find a way to be open and welcoming to others, and I love that this show pushes this idea that it is not about closing yourself off, but about accepting everyone in your community whether you agree with them or not, and accepting people for who they are. I think this is a great message and I love that we get to spread that message right now.
Footloose runs at the Fulton Theatre through July 17, 2016. For more information and tickets for the run at the Fulton Theatre visit their website at www.thefulton.org or call the box office at 717-397-7425.
Photo Credit: Shifted Focus Photography
Kelli Curtin is 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.