So everybody’s building together… it’s not just “Annie”[that] is my priority, Summer Stage is my priority.
-Mary Leigh Filippone
This week we were able to sit down for a short lunch with Mary Leigh Filippone, the director of “Annie, Jr.” on preparation for her show, Summer Stage, and wise words on theatre in general.
Transcribed by: Ryan Heidig
Brenna Dinon: How did you find your way to Summer Stage?
Mary Leigh Filippone: I found my way to Summer Stage via Rob Henry in 2005. When they were doing “42nd Street” I decided I wanted to audition, because it was a favorite show of mine and I really wanted to play Maggie Jones, and I really liked working with Rob. So I came out of the audition and I got the part, which was super exciting and that’s how I ended up doing shows here.
But as a kid, I remember seeing “Mary Poppins” [at Summer Stage] when I was six. So we saw shows here growing up, and I had a ton of friends that did Summer Stage. But Children’s Theater never fit with my summer schedule, so I never ended up joining until it was Mainstage time. It was the summer after my junior year of college when I finally came over and got involved in “42nd Street.” The rest is history!
So, why do you keep coming back to Summer Stage?
Because it is my favorite place to work. I think I told you guys maybe this last year, but it’s hands down the most organized, well-oiled machine I have ever worked for. Everybody is enthusiastic about what they are doing. Everybody knows their job and takes their job seriously and that’s what makes everything here at such a professional level. I look forward to being here every summer, I wish that it could be my full time, all year round [job]. If we wanted to do “Fall Stage” or “Winter Stage” I would be all over it.
So, how many shows have you directed at Summer Stage?
I started with Rising Stars. I directed Rising Star’s “Willy Wonka.” The following summer we did “Sleeping Beauty.” Then last summer, I was asked to direct Children’s Theater, but Harry still needed someone to do Rising Stars as well. So I did the first session of Rising Stars’ “101 Dalmatians” and then I did “The Dinosaur Musical.” This is my second year of doing Children’s Theater and fourth year being at Summer Stage.
That’s awesome! So, what are the kids learning in your cast, and how are you learning from your kids? From years past and now, are there things that you take back from them and do they give you things as you are giving them things?
I feel like a big thing they are learning and this is something that was important for me when I was in musicals when I was their age, was …how important everybody’s part is in the show. I mean not everyone has a line, not everyone has a solo, but everybody needs to really believe that when they are on stage they are adding to what is going on, on stage. Sometimes that is a hard pill for them to swallow because when you say it to them it sounds like lip service and they might think, “Well I am just in the background” or “I only have this crossover,” but it’s really important for them to know that those little moments make the show.
I like when I am in the audience and …I don’t always stare at the person [who’s] talking, I look and see who’s stage left, [who’s] having that interaction. When I was in musicals in middle school and high school, I was in the ensemble a lot… it was really exciting to figure out a way to make it my own.
.…when we add these crossovers and scene change moments and stuff like that, I love to see what they come up with, the personalities they created, and that’s happened a lot in this show, because ….they came up with their characters. We have a Salvation Army Santa and nuns, a Newsie, and we asked them, “well, who’s in New York City?” and they spouted all these ideas out and where their characters came from. And then they are playing servants. They are learning… how they can make their mark on a show, regardless of how much stage time there is…
I just learn from them and their enthusiasm is just infectious. It’s really nice that moment where everybody decides, “I’m going to give a hundred and ten percent right now,” and they can feel how the energy of the musical number changes or how that scene change can be more interesting to the audience, and they feel it, we ask them, “Did that feel different to you?” And they say, “Yeah, it did!” Okay well, “Lock that in and let’s do that every time,” and that makes us more excited, and everybody starts to feed off of everybody else.
There are 70 kids in the cast and [we have a] 5-person production team… we say every time we run it, “How can we make it better?” So I am looking for ways to make it better, but they need to internalize that too, and make a choice for themselves as individuals, how can you make every single moment that you are on stage better than the last time.
Lauren Stevenson Yacina: We have people who know about Summer Stage, and we have the outside group of people who don’t know about Summer Stage. Everybody inside says how special a place this is. Why do you think it’s so special? How would you explain it to people who don’t know about Summer Stage?
I just think…Summer Stage has that energy and when you’re here you feel supported and you feel positive, there is nothing false or disingenuous… and people are being genuine about supporting you. Every time I run into Dawn Morningstar [director of Seussical, Jr.] in the hallway she’s asks me how the show is going, you know, her show is her priority because they are opening before us, but she always says to me “How’s it going, where are you guys with the show?” things like that. It’s nice that nobody is out for themselves, no one is like “I want to make my show the best show of the summer “it’s like “I want to make this summer the best summer of Summer Stage” and then we move to the next summer and it’s the same thing. So everybody’s building together, it’s not just “Annie” [that] is my priority, Summer Stage is my priority.
Brenna Dinon: So, why should people come see “Annie, Jr.?”
I think that it is a really great opportunity for kids and adults alike to share a moment of theater, whether you’ve seen “Annie” a lot of times. [Or] you can bring somebody who’s having their first experience with seeing “Annie,” and it’s the show that everyone has…some way to connect to it. So, what a great opportunity to bring your child who doesn’t know “Annie,” and give him/her that opportunity. My niece is three years old and she’ll sit through a whole show, so I am excited to bring her, because she loves the dancing and she loves the costumes, but she doesn’t know “Annie,” but she will when she leaves and that’s something she will remember. She’ll be singing the songs, so it will spark that interest.
… I think that it’s timeless, it doesn’t need revamping, we don’t need to set “Annie” in a different time period or anything for it to be accessible. It’s already accessible to everybody. Photos By: Dan Luner