BY SANDY STAGGS
Invigorated by weeks of 10-hour days of rehearsals and countless other tasks beholden to an Artistic Director’s role, Jenna Tamisiea Elser is exhausted, but gloriously liberated by her art.
As co-founder of Glow Lyric Theatre, South Carolina’s only professional opera company, she has been in preparation for Glow’s 8th Summer Festival Season running July 20 –August 5 at The Warehouse Theatres in Greenville.
Under the thematic moniker of “Dare to Dream,” Glow is producing the smash Broadway musical “In the Heights” by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, the rarely-staged “Fidelio” (Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera) and of course, sticking to the roots of Glow’s early years as an operetta company, Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S Pinafore.”
“We have such a unique format,” she told Carolina Curtain Call on a recent break from rehearsal. “We run more like a summer stock theatre.”
With three shows in repertory, Elser (along with co-founder Christian Elser,) crystallizes the trio of productions in about three-and-a-half weeks with probably the tightest rehearsal experience than any other theatre in the Upstate. “We just don’t have the luxury of longer rehearsals,’ she said.
Glow, with the goal of becoming a “destination theatre company,” calls its program the “festival” season, so people can see all three shows in one weekend.
Combined, the company employs some 115 people including the creative team and crew, musicians, and actors.
With previous themes such as “Question Authority” and “Season of Love,” Glow is also the only company in South Carolina devoted to presenting work that is socially relevant and utilizing theatre for social change.
“What Christian and I try to do and what we believe is to find a way to discuss current issues that are relevant locally and in our state,” she added.
The umbrella of “Dare to Dream” was selected last fall, long before haunted images of children being separated from their parents in detention centers at the border. And Glow’s idea of “dreamers” does not exclusively refer to DACA.
“America is this wonderful land and people come here to fulfill and realize their dreams,” she said. “We just wanted to start a conversation about what it means to live here in America, and what home means as well. That includes people that from other places and the people that live here already and their ancestors.”
In these works, “some are dreaming of rising above their social status (“H.M.S Pinafore”) and some are dreaming of justice and equality (“Fidelio”).
“H.M.S Pinafore” is a parody on social class structure and full of wackiness, she said. “It pokes fun of the class system and the British Parliament and it rips everyone no matter what side of the political aisle they are on.” But at the heart of the operetta lies a love story.
Known primarily for his grand symphonies, Beethoven wrote “Fidelio” as a response to Napoleon’s rule and what he stood for, Elser said. “It’s about freedom and inherent dignity in every human.”
Set in a prison, “Fidelio” features a “Shero” in the character of Leonora, who Elser describes as kind of a Wonder Woman type. “She spends so much if the opera trying to kick butt and get her husband out of prison.”
But Elser has calibrated the story to 1945 Germany just before the end of World War II when the Germans are experiencing high-anxiety about their fate under the crush of the Allies.
“It’s going to be powerful and uplifting to see such a courageous woman. The courage of one woman can save the world and that is an important message.”
However, the highlight of the season is, of course, “In the Heights.” Like “Hamilton” it is a rap/hip-hop musical, but with salsa and other Latino music influences. Set in the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, the musical is “a peak into the daily lives of people that live there and their struggles with identity and knowing where ‘home’ is,” she said “Most of the characters are first-generation Americans.”
“In the Heights is a super fun dancing-in-the-aisles show . . . that has a lot of diverse perspectives,” she added. And with that in mind, Elser knew it was important to cast appropriately and authentically with Hispanic and African-American actors.
And while this is the first rap and hip-hop musical Elser has directed, she finds the material no different than “Rent” or “West Side Story,” stories she has helmed in prior seasons.
“It is written in verse much like Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. It is not inherently different. It is just the medium in which Miranda chooses to communicate,” she said.
“He lets them speak in a voice that is uniquely theirs (with merengue, salsa and rap). He did the same thing in Hamilton’. “
“It’s new and very different and Christian and I have just enjoyed the heck of watching the cast create this community,” she added. “This is a diverse show with perspectives that I will never 100 percent understand, and at the end of the day, it’s not my story to tell. I am just getting out of the way.”
The “Dare to Dream” season runs July 20-August 5 at The Warehouse Theatre in Greenville. For tickets, visit www.glowlyric.com.