Behind the Curtain with Founders Christian Elser and Jenna Tamisiea
BY SANDY STAGGS
Remember that hashtag. You’ll be seeing it a lot this summer as Glow Lyric Theatre embarks on its 9th season in an exciting and expanded Summer Festival with the very goal to “Question Authority.”
And following last year’s successful double-bill themed “Season of Love” with “Romeo and Juliet” and “West Side Story” at McAllister Auditorium, Glow will perform this year in a new, more cozy location at the Fine Arts Center Theatre, and increase the line-up to three shows: the opera “The Crucible” based on Arthur Miller’s play, Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta “The Gondoliers,” and a 50th anniversary production of “HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.”
“Christian and I have dreamed for many years of doing this [an Opera, Operetta and a Musical],” Glow co-founder Jenna Tamisiea (with husband Dr. Christian Elser) told Carolina Curtain Call in a recent phone interview. “Thankfully, this is possible with our partnership with the Fine Arts Center. “
And since the 155-seat theatre is a smaller venue than McAllister Auditorium, Elser said they are adding more performances, and anticipates them to sell out. There are 21 curtains in all with 11 chances to experience “HAIR” from July 14-30, and five performances of both “The Crucible” (July 13-28) and “The Gondoliers” (July 21-29).
But Elser considers a more quaint audience a blessing in disguise. “The kind of theater we do is well-suited for more intimate settings especially with the shows we are doing this summer,” he said. “‘HAIR’ doesn’t work as well in a grand proscenium space and it will be a great opportunity for us to get closer with an audience.”
“And ‘The Gondoliers’ by nature,” Tamisiea added, “has a lot of cast/audience interaction, so it was important to pursue a more intimate, smaller space.”
Elser and Tamisiea, who have never strayed from Glow’s mission of producing timely, socially-relevant work and utilizing theatre for social change, said that initially, they had mapped out a vastly different program for the summer festival. That is, until the November election.
“Then the political situation changed,” said Elser, referring to the chaotic and contentious election. “We changed what we were doing and we wanted to choose a season with shows that discuss authority and what that means in our country,” said Elser.
“We were seeing so much resistance in November with marches and protests,” Tamisiea chimed in. “We have a commitment to work that respond to current events in our community and what goes on and hope that it sparks a dialogue.”
“Anyone that works with us has to drink the Kool-Aid in that way,” she said with a hint of pride in her voice. “You get to put your art into action for singers and technicians. Being an artist, you want to make a difference in the world.”
And Glow’s trio of titles this season certainly falls into the category of #questionauthority!
Gilbert and Sullivan’s savoy opera “The Gondoliers,” like most of this Victorian duo’s works such as “The Mikado” is pure political satire.
“It’s a political farce about the English political system,” said Elser of the opera’s wacky plot about two Venetian gondoliers vying for the king’s throne in the mythical land of Barataria.
“We describe ‘The Gondoliers’ as the SNL skit of the season,” he elaborated. “Setting the show in a fictional place removes it from being too harsh, but in reality, it’s about the British parliamentary establishment.”
“And because it is so old [and in the public domain],” Tamisiea said, “We can actually change some of the lyrics and throw in some modern political commentary. Humor is a [great] way to question the system.”
For Glow’s full-length opera, the couple chose an equally compelling, but not well-known Robert Ward’s Pulitzer Prize-winning adaptation of “The Crucible,” a modern (1961) operatic work, by opera standards.
“It’s not entirely obscure,” said Elser who will music direct the productions. “But it is usually done by a larger repertory company where they can afford to do it.”
“It has also been translated into German and has a bit of an international presence because of what it says about the Salem Witch Trials and McCarthyism,” he added. “People know ‘The Crucible’ and it clearly has tons to say, and it is first-rate music and drama. People are going to love this show.”
Tamisiea, who will be direct and choreograph all three works, has an intensive drama and musical theatre background, but said she came into opera later in her training. However, her exceptional credentials and body of work has impressed the Converse College’s Petrie School of Music enough to recently, as in this week, appoint her as Lecturer of Music, where she will direct the opera program and teach opera workshop.
“Part of the reason I love ‘The Crucible’ is that I can approach it as a musical. That’s how well done it is,” she said. “I have such reverence for the [Arthur Miller’s] play. And since the opera was adapted so very soon after the play, all his original intentions are still in place for story.”
But the production that is generating much of the buzz at Glow is “HAIR.” Though they fully expect all three productions to sell out, “HAIR” is the one they are “watching pretty solidly.”
“That’s why we are encouraging everyone to buy their season tickets now,” said Tamisiea.
She added that she is excited about all three casts, but particularly ‘HAIR,” which includes Paige Vasel, Tierney Breedlove, Sonni James and Nicholas Hawkins.
“This is a new generation that has a story to tell, especially with what’s happening right now,” she said.
“We’ve got a new kind of rebellion and these young actors bring their youth and experience to this production. Along with it being a powerful [message] of pro-equality and pro-peace musical which we all need to hear about it right now. And there are tons of hits in it like “Aquarius,” “Good Morning Starshine” and “Three-Five-Zero-Zero.”
“This show will attract [young audiences] and the folks that remember it from the first time around,” added Elser. “This show has been around for 50 years and was originally a piece of devised theatre that had something to say in the time it was written.”
“So many of the themes are so equally relevant today,” he said. “But it’s also disheartening that it is still so necessary. On top of that, I have always loved the music and we have a great band and a great cast.”
And the couple will not be tinkering too much with this hippie musical set in the shadow of the Vietnam War.
“We are keeping the show as it is,” Tamisiea said. “It doesn’t need anything imposed upon it, and people can draw their own conclusions.”
And so how does the Glow team produce three full-scale productions all at once? Meticulous time-management skills, for starters.
“No one is doing what we are doing, three shows all at the same time,” Tamisiea said. “Getting in that the mindset requires extreme organization, scheduled down to the minute. We are [managing] 100-plus people over the course of six weeks.”
But Tamisiea said she loves to direct three shows at once: “Each one informs me of the other and we can immediately see the tie-ins and related themes and exploit them.”
And Elser said they know what to expect since both have performed triple productions as singers and actors in repertory theatre. “Sometimes I would literally go into the dressing room and wonder which costume I have to put on,” he said. “It’s a wonderful frenzy and we do plan to take a vacation after this.”
And for the summer offerings, Elser and Tamisiea have assembled a top notch ensemble both on stage and behind the curtains.
“We have fabulous first-rate international artists that have performed with Lyric Opera of Chicago, New York City Opera, and the Met Opera,” he said, as well as an enormous pool of local talent.
“Greenville has a very healthy community of opera singers and we have great school programs that cultivate them”, Tamisiea said. “Many of our local opera singers came to our auditions and we hired most all of them.”
“There are people we use every single year and local new talent, and international artists that want to come to Greenville. We have such a good reputation even outside of the region that people want to come to Greenville,” she added.
The creative team features longtime collaborators, as well as some artists who began their careers with Glow: Henry Wilkinson on Scenic Design; Kevin Frazier as Lighting Designer for “HAIR” and “The Crucible”; Maranda DeBusk as Lighting Designer for “The Gondoliers”; Justin Hall as Costume Designer on “HAIR” and “The Crucible”; Erin Burnett as Costume Designer for “The Gondoliers”; Zoe Sneed as Production Manager; and Jessica Karnes as Stage Manager.
In addition to the Summer Festival, Glow and its founders have been active in promoting its mission year-round. The popular “Raising Voices” series of one-night performances this year focused on celebrating diversity and giving voice to marginalized artists in the community. And Glow was the closing act of the recent TEDXGreenville at the Peace Center.
Outside of their Glow duties, Tamisiea is currently directing “Spring Awakening” that will premiere on May 19 at The Warehouse Theatre. In addition, she recently directed a devised piece called ”Pulse” about the mass shooting in Orlando at Anam Cara Theatre in Asheville, the only company dedicated to devised theatre in the area.
And Elser recently music-directed “Dido and Aeneas” at Presbyterian College where he resides as Associate Professor of Music.
And you can catch a preview of “HAIR (and other rock opera selections) when Glow and a live band return to ARTISPHERE on May 14 at 4 p.m. for a 45-minute set.
GLOW Lyric Theatre’s 2017 Summer Festival runs July 13-30 at the Fine Arts Center, 102 Pine Knoll Dr. in Greenville. Season passes are now available and Singe tickets go on sale May 1. Visit http://www.glowlyric.com/.