No matter what you’re looking for, it’s in the show. You’re going to get to laugh, you’re going to get to follow a journey. You’re going to get to see beautiful costumes, and beautiful lights and unbelievable dancing…No matter what you’re coming for, you’re going to get it. It’s that big…everything is there.
-Rachel Stevens, “Hairspray” Director
Brenna Dinon: We understand you are studying at The Actor’s Studio affiliated with Pace University. Can you tell us more about it?
Rachel Stevens: Sure. The Actor’s Studio is in downtown Manhattan. It’s where “Inside the Actor’s Studio with James Lipton” comes from. When I applied, I had very specific expectations about what I was looking for in a directing program. There are only a few directing programs that even exist.
They take only four people [for the directing program] and crazily enough, three out of the four went to Point Park [The Conservatory of Performing Arts at Point Park University] where I went to undergraduate school. The classes I take with the actors are acting, voice, speech and theatre history, and rest is just the four of us in the directing program. There is very special attention. There is a lot of specific energy geared toward me as a student.
You’ve been a part of Summer Stage for awhile. You have performed in shows and you have been on staff as Rising Star director and Children’s Theatre director. But this summer has been different for you because not only have you directed a Children’s Theater show,”Tom Sawyer,” but you also are taking on directing Mainstage as well. How did this come around?
Well, when the summer started I was working on “Tom Sawyer” as the director and I was assisting my brother, Marcus Stevens, who has been directing Mainstage productions for the last three years in succession.
I had been on the [Hairspray] team from the get-go in terms creating the concept for the set and the concept for the way the show looks and sounds…just really from the ground up. But more as an assistant, just kind of chiming in when I thought he just needed something or just giving my opinion. Kind of smoothing out his ideas, but they were originally very much his ideas.
And then about a week into the rehearsal process, basically after we just cast the show, he took me aside when they were doing a music rehearsal and said, “I got a call.” He had been going in for callbacks for the Off-Broadway show “Forbidden Broadway” and originally they said that they wanted him as an understudy but when the other director came in, they said they changed their minds and…they offered him the role on the spot. It’s a very big deal for him and his career and so we had a very long conversation, actually during “Hairspray” rehearsal, which we couldn’t let anyone know we were frazzled that he was going to leave. The conversation we had was you know, “I don’t want to give the show to anybody else” and I said “I would be devastated if it weren’t me.” Not because I needed to direct the show, but because I believed so much in what Marcus’ concept was for the show, and because of our close relationship. I knew that I needed to see it through to the end to make sure that the show was what he expected, and what he believed in. I believe in his work and I really wanted to follow through. It was a hard decision to make because I was very overwhelmed for a couple of days.
Basically I did a tutorial with Marcus over a weekend. Friday night we sat down and went through the script page by page and we first talked about design, then we talked about lights, and then we talked about staging, and then we talked about characterization, and basically we took two days – nine to midnight – talking about the show.
How has it been working on “Hairspray”?
It’s been really fantastic. You know, our [Marcus and Rachel’s] dream is to have a company together. This is actually our first show that we can really put our name on it and say we did it as a team. Our aesthetic is very different. He thinks very big, very big scale which is what “Hairspray” is. It’s a huge show with big units and moving lights and very quick transitions. My style is a little bit softer and a little bit kinda minimalist, and putting those two minds together I think is really interesting.
So we know that “Hairspray” has been a highly anticipated show here for Summer Stage. How do you feel working up to that kind of expectation as a director?
We’re taking a show that is bright and big and colorful and one of the most difficult shows for actors to do because they are expected to be superhuman! They’re dancing, singing, and acting all at the same time in a very complex way, but delivering it in a form of a comedy to deliver a very complex issue. To deliver about a message that is really specific to Summer Stage, about individuality and about choosing not to fit in, to make the world a better place, and all these really wonderful ideas, but in the format of glitz and glamour and lights and sound. So the expectations for me were, yes, it’s a highly anticipated show, but I want to give the audience more than they expect. I don’t want them to just see a fluffly show with great costumes. I want them to see a show that has all of those elements, but at the core of its story it means something very important.
When creating a show like “Hairspray” which does kind of have that “superhuman” quality, how do you give that to your actors? How do you get them prepared for something like this?
It’s a very specific style and it’s actually been very interesting, and especially with this group of kids and young adults. A lot of them are being trained in [theatre] programs. The thing that has been so delightful about this process is that most of these people really want to know what their intention is, they really want to know what their need is. They really want to do the hardcore acting, and the more method acting that I do at my school. And I love that I can take an actor like that and say, “Okay, I can’t take your honesty away from you if I tried but this is a totally different style, it’s vaudevillian, it’s exaggerated, it’s comedy.” It’s been a really challenging but rewarding struggle [with the actors] to find the balance between the characture-ish moments that make the play what the play deserves to be, and still keeping it honest and human.
People should come see “Hairspray” because it’s just so much fun. Even when I’m watching it now in tech and thinking about all of these tiny little elements, I still can’t stop smiling because it’s just so much fun. The story is enjoyable, the actors are great. I have never seen a more impressive Mainstage set. It is the most professional looking, unbelievable set! The costumes that Mary Folino has put together…our wigs are professional from New York! It is top notch quality. If anything, even if you come to the show for just the dancing alone, you’ll be impressed.
The show is going to relate to every single audience member. No matter what you’re looking for, it’s in the show. You’re going to get to laugh, you’re going to get to follow a journey. You’re going to get to see beautiful costumes, and beautiful lights and unbelievable dancing. Rob Harris [choreographer]… believes in these actors so much that they can handle the work he gives them, and they rise to the occasion. The dancing is so intricate and so impressive. No matter what you’re coming for, you’re going to get it. It’s that big that everything is there.