Tag Archives: Estelle Parsons

Moms in musical theater

Patti LuPone as Mama Rose in Gypsy on Broadway-Photo by Joan Marcus. LuPone performs at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts March 3, 2012.

I got to thinking about mothers in musical theater the other day while looking forward to the return of “Mamma Mia!” to ASU Gammage this week, which my daughter Lizabeth is eager to see for a second time. Apparently watching a fictional parent prance around in bell bottoms has more appeal than living with the real thing.

Alice Ripley as Diana in Next to Normal-Photo by Joan Marcus

We’ve seen all sorts of parents portrayed on Valley, and other, stages. We saw Alice Ripley perform the role of “Diana” in “Next to Normal” at the Balboa Theatre in San Diego. Estelle Parsons perform the role of “Violet” in “August: Osage County” at ASU Gammage. And Rich Hebert perform the role of “Dad” in “Billy Elliot” at ASU Gammage as well.

“Mamma Mia!” follows the adventures of a young daughter, “Sophie,” readying to wed. She lives on an island with her mom, “Donna,” who isn’t quite sure which of three suitors from her own youth might be Sophie’s biological father. It’s all set to music by ABBA and it’s an especially fun show for folks who like their theater upbeat and awash with bright colors.

Madalena Alberto as Fantine in Les Mis-Photo by Michael La Poer Trench

A mother facing a more serious dilemma, the care of her young daughter in her absence, is at the heart of the next musical coming to ASU Gammage — Les Miserables. As a mom named “Fantine” who has sacrificed much for her child lay dying, an ex-convict named “Jean Valjean” vows to keep the child “Cosette” safe. It proves quite a task given his own past and stirrings of revolution in early 19th century France.

The perplexing nature of parenting seems sometimes to be the only thing fueling the future of theater craft. A quick review of shows coming to Valley stages during the 2011/12 season reveals a long list of works filled with mommy or daddy issues — some set to music, others just words.

Kaye Tuckerman as Donna and Chloe Tucker as Sophie in Mamma Mia!-Photo by Joan Marcus

Arizona Theatre Company presents the Yasmina Rez play “God of Carnage” in Tucson and Phoenix this fall. It’s the tale of two couples brought together by a playground fight between their 11-year-old sons. I’m delighted to learn that mothers and daughters aren’t always the ones under the microscope.

Phoenix Theatre performs a classic work of musical theater about stage mothering gone horribly wrong next spring. “Gypsy” is the story of “Mama Rose” and the two daughters forced to endure her insecurity and interference. That woman needs to cut the cord already.

Arizona Jewish Theatre Company presents “The Blessing of a Broken Heart,” based on a book in which Sheri Mandell shares experiences surrounding the murder of her 13-year-old son Koby and his friend Yosef. It’s been adapted for the stage by Todd Salovey, and reviews of other productions paint it as gut-wrenching.

While I suppose it’s tempting for some to relish all those ABBA moments without experiencing more sobering reflections on parenting, I’m looking forward to doing both.

— Lynn

Look to these nuns for some serious fun... (Photo: Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts)

Note: Looking for an additional way to enjoy mother/daughter or grown-up friend time? Head to Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts Sat, May 21 for the “Sing-Along Sound of Music.” $12/adults, $6 children ages 3-12. Warm up & costume contest at 2pm, film and sing-along at 2:3opm. Hosted by “Sister” Patti Hannon of “Late Night Catechism.” Click here for info on costume discount available from Mardi Gras costumes in Scottsdale.

Coming up: Summer dance classes, Ode to season tickets, Seuss meets symphony, Musings on photo I.D.


Tales of teen improv

When Valley resident Bill Binder recalls his college days, spent as an engineering student at Michigan Technological University, it’s the unexpected find he seems fondest of remembering. That find was improvisation, also known as “improv.”

Improv is a form of live theater performance in which plot lines and characters are developed on the spot by those who are performing, rather than written ahead of time then rehearsed and performed as scripted and directed.

Pondering the definition and nature of improv is a thrilling enterprise on its own—just consider some of the definitions and perspectives offered by improv performers throughout the country—from the Hideout Theatre in Austin, Texas or the GoComedy! Improv Theater in Ferndale, Michigan.

Binder recalls Dr. Sue Stephens, current faculty director for the student improv comedy group at Michigan Tech, suggesting he get involved with the troupe—which selects members through an audition process. Although he had only seen “the television version” if improv at that point, Binder was game.

Today Binder serves as executive producer for the Phoenix Improv Festival, an annual event scheduled this year for April 15th-17th at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix (a venue Binder hopes conveys the artistic/theatrical nature of the genre to those who may not realize that improv involves more than stand-up comedy). 

My 16-year-old daughter Lizabeth once participated in a festival workshop, and has enjoyed improv work with several talented actors and teachers here in the Valley—so I recognize the instinct for improv when I see it.

Liz chatted a bit this weekend with her voice teacher, Michelle Hakala of Scottsdale, about possible college, conservatory and career paths. Though she’s long been learning the craft of acting, I hadn’t realized that improv work was right up there with musical theater and dramatic acting on Liz’s list of things she’d feel lucky to do for a living.

Some presume that improv work somehow requires less talent or skill than more traditional performance art done ala script and such, but Binder and other improv artists make a compelling case to the contrary. (Hakala notes that improv skills are an important piece of the acting craft even for those who do other types of theater performance.)

I imagine myself being plopped into an improv troupe only to stiffen and stammer when their riff really hits a groove. I might have more luck attempting an aria, though that wouldn’t be terribly pretty either.

Binder shared a bit of “Improv 101” with me by contrasting improv with traditional theater performance, in which there are two artists—the writer and the actor. Actors in traditional theater “have to understand their character and put themselves into it.” (And yes, we clearly recognize that other artists and professionals are equally essential to the craft.)

“With improv,” says Binder, “you have nothing going into it.”

He’s especially smitten with improv because “the emotional places you can go with it can surprise you.” (Okay, so now I’m starting to see parallels between improv and parenting, but that’s a whole other story….)

“It’s about discovery,” reflects Binder—explaining that improv artists “listen to each other and work as a team” and that they “go to amazing places together, never knowing how it will end.”

I imagine a conversation between Binder and Estelle Parsons, Tony Award-winning actress currently starring in the touring production of “August: Osage County.” Their work clearly starts from a different place because one has a script and the other does not.

But I suspect the processes each goes through are both similar and different in a number of ways that we audience members may never fully appreciate unless we also practice the craft.

The question might even make for a lovely piece of theater all its own. (It’s moments such as these that I wish playwriting were among my bag of tricks.)

I asked Binder a bit more about the festival—why it was started and why it matters today. Seems it was started because so many youth had an interest in the genre but “no access to doing the craft.”

Binder and others value the festival as a way to showcase the many wonders of improv beyond what people are seeing on television in similar art forms such as sketch comedy.

I’m proud to enjoy it all—after growing up with Saturday Night Live, and passing the tradition along to Lizabeth many years ago (she’s rocked Halloween as more than a few SNL characters in her day).

Doesn’t every mother and daughter duo in America today sing together about fish heads or speak faux French ala the coneheads?

I asked Binder what types of teens seem most attracted to improv—knowing of course that within every art form there’s a diverse range of participants. It’s the kids who want to be active, he says—the kids who “have something inside them and want to focus on it and put it out there.”

It’s becoming clearer and clearer to me why teens and improv are so beautifully married.

“Teens are honest,” reflects Binder. “They have more emotions than they know what to do with.” They’re uniquely qualified, perhaps, for an art form where participants “can really trade beautiful places while all going on a journey together.”

Binder praises teens for their creativity and desire to express their ideas—things their peers sometimes deem uncool and their parents sometimes deem inappropriate.

Improv takes teens on journeys for which they are uniquely suited.

Valley teens have several opportunities to participate in improv performance troupes—including those offered by the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company and Valley Youth Theatre.

The All Rights Reserved teen improv troupe, part of the Curtain Call educational program of the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company, is holding auditions this Thursday, Feb. 11th, at 7pm, at Congregation Beth Israel (on the corner of Shea and 56th St.).

I’ll be talking with folks from both the AJTC and VYT teen improv programs and sharing their insights in a future post.

If you or your teen would like to learn more about improv in the meantime, get your hot little hands on these two books recommended by Binder…

Improvise: Scene from the Inside Out by Mick Napier

Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation by Charna Halpern, Del Close and Kim “Howard” Johnson

Happy improvising!


Coming up: Chaparral grad Jacqueline Grabois, currently touring with the musical Avenue Q, talks about how she got the gig—and offers tips for aspiring young actors