Angelina Mussro:  Of Cutting Hay and Teaching Artists

Angelina Mussro is a pure delight.  Having made her debut at The Warehouse Theatre several seasons ago in Romeo & Juliet, Angelina has become a fixture in our Wooden O program as a teaching artist.  Her spunk, positive energy, and intelligence have helped numerous middle schoolers and high schoolers increase their knowledge in the language arts this school year.  We are proud to share her talent with you again in Uncle Vanya. We recently sat down with Angelina for a short interview about her work at the theatre and her experience with Chekhov’s classic.

WHT:  So you just finished college, right?  What’s been happening in your life since graduation?
Angelina:  Yes, I just graduated from Anderson University in May. It’s hard to believe that not even a year has passed since then because I’ve been so busy! I have performed in three shows since graduating, not counting Uncle Vanya. One was with the Anderson Shakespeare Festival, and two were with the South Carolina Children’s Theatre. I also began teaching with WHT’s education program during the fall and I regularly assist at the Children’s Theatre.

WHT:  You are a teaching artist at The Warehouse Theatre. What’s been some of your most memorable experiences in working with this education program?
Angelina:  During the fall, I spent a great deal of time teaching workshops in tandem with The Warehouse Theatre’s touring Hamlet production. The most memorable experiences came whenever, as I was leaving a school, kids would come up to me and express their enjoyment of the workshops. Some would say, “I didn’t know Shakespeare was so cool!” A few of them even said, “I wish you could just keep coming back and doing this stuff for all our literature reading.” It’s incredible to watch their confidence grow and their imaginations take off!

WHT:  Is there or are there things you’ve learned by being a teaching artist that you now apply to your own acting work?
Angelina:  Definitely.  Most of them can be categorized as learning to have as much patience with myself as I do with those I teach. One example would be that, when approaching a Shakespearean text, I now remind myself to do exactly what I tell kids: break down the sentences. Pick out the words you know and look up the ones you’re unsure about. It all makes sense; you just have to take it in small pieces.

WHT:  The cast was asked to come in off book for this rehearsal period. What was that like for you and how did it change your learning process? Or actor’s process?
Angelina:  Well, during college I was often asked to come in off-book for a play’s first rehearsal. That also included being memorized for any understudy roles I was assigned. Because I had that experience, it has been my habit to get the book out of my hands as soon as possible. I work better when the words have time to live inside me before I explore things with my cast members. That being said, I will admit that it was daunting to have this particular play fully memorized by the first rehearsal. I worked those words at every free moment I had. Although I knew them all, they weren’t really settled in me until the first week and a half of rehearsals had passed.

WHT:  You only had three weeks of rehearsal time for a difficult show. Did the truncated schedule help you and if so, in what ways?
Angelina:  It prompted me to make immediate, but strong choices during rehearsals. Additionally, since much had to be accomplished in a relatively short rehearsal time, the only way to keep pace was to slow down and reflect.  After rehearsals, I’d take time to write down observations, questions, or ideas from rehearsal. I’ve often done this in the past, but it became a necessity during Uncle Vanya.  So, ultimately, yes, I think the condensed schedule helped me learn specificity and balance.

WHT:  You performed with us a few years ago as Juliet. Now you are back in another young role, but one where your character is hard at work attending a large estate, cutting hay, and whatnot. How did your approach differ between the two roles?
Angelina:  Some differences exist simply because I’ve experienced more life and discovered more about my personal acting approach in the years between Juliet and Sonya. One significant difference is that I’ve better learned to find the overlap between myself and a character. Sonya’s impulse to work no matter what, to throw herself into doing, is not unlike myself. I don’t walk around on a farm all day to get into character, but knowing our similarities has helped me find our differences. I was still learning this when I worked on Juliet. Another difference in approach goes back to that off-book factor. For Juliet, I kept the book in my hands for the first two weeks of rehearsal. With Sonya, I came in with the words on my tongue. This liberated me to focus more on the connection between myself and my scene partners. That connection came more slowly when I played Juliet.

WHT:  Had you worked on other Chekhovian projects before? Maybe in school or somewhere else?
Angelina:  Honestly, I’ve never performed any Chekhov. The last time I worked at any length with a Chekhov script was during a directing project in high-school.  Happily, the text was The Proposal. This one act exposed me to Chekhov’s humor, and so, gave me a readiness to see the lighter side of his works.

WHT:  What’s been the greatest challenge of working on this script?
Angelina:  The greatest challenge has also been the greatest delight: finding the humor.  I think Chekhov reflects real life in his text. It’s like laughing so hard you cry, or crying until you realize how ridiculous you must look.  As I mentioned before, I knew Chekhov had a funny bone, but it can be harder to pinpoint in his more somber-feeling works.  You have to approach even the saddest of moments with an open mind. Otherwise, you may miss the most heart-felt laugh.

WHT:  From the beginning of rehearsal until now, what’s been the biggest shift in playing Sonya?
Angelina:  I think it came when I realized that Sonya’s part of the story is all about hope. From beginning to end, Sonya is hopeful for something. However, the thing for which she hopes changes throughout the play.  At first, her hope is fixed on Doctor Astrov. When she loses his love, she becomes like Hope quivering in the corner of Pandora’s box, afraid to emerge.  At the play’s close, she has rooted her hope in something beyond this life; a hope of heaven, if you will.  Discovering this about Sonya helped me define her in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the beginning.

WHT:   Have you been surprised at the audience reaction to your character thus far?
Angelina:  That’s been quite funny, actually! Everyone I talk with after a performance can’t understand why I’m playing the “homely” girl. I have certainly been surprised by that. “You’re too pretty to play Sonya,” they say, “Otherwise, why would Sonya say she isn’t pretty?” And yet, don’t all women, no matter how beautiful, struggle to believe in their own loveliness?

WHT:   What was the single biggest influence upon the way you approached your Uncle Vanya character?
Angelina:  Our production uses the Annie Baker’s modern translation of Uncle Vanya.  So, from the first, it was clear that we wanted to make Chekhov relatable.  This was huge for me: not thinking of it as CHEKHOV, and all the stigmas that carries, but rather as a human story.  Of course, you certainly have to look at the play and its characters through the lens of the playwright’s style.  However, simply allowing the words to speak for themselves first allowed me to see Sonya as a human being.  If I had put her into a Chekhov mold too soon, I would have missed her heart.

WHT:  Was there anything in the scenic, lighting, or costume design that affected your choices on stage?
Angelina:  Yes. The background to our set is a beautiful forest. As the play progresses, this forest grows steadily thinner and thinner, depicting the parallel loss in the characters lives. This caught my attention. Suddenly, I was aware that Sonya is like a young tree. Around her, older trees decay and fall, and she herself is nearly uprooted. In the end, however, she still stands…part of a new forest, perhaps. Having that image in mind affected my relationship to the other characters and the circumstances Sonya faces.

WHT:  This was your first time working with Roy. What was that journey like?
Angelina:  It was a joy.  What I appreciate the most about Roy is that he is both a teacher and a director.  He asks great questions, and then gives his actors space to discover the answers. Then, when an answer proves hard to find, he points you in the right direction. He never settles for something good when something excellent could still be found.  Also, like a true teacher, he makes time to explore things with you.

WHT:  Is there someone else’s work that you greatly enjoy? If so, who and why?
Angelina:  Yes.  Jessica Crandall. I’ve enjoyed everyone’s work and gleaned something from each cast member.  Perhaps because we had two significant scenes together, though, Jessica’s work impacted me.  I had the opportunity to observe her a little more closely.  I so appreciate her honesty and commitment.  She never stops making discoveries.  She is open about the answers she has yet to find.  She never settles for what is less than her utmost.  She gives all she has as a scene partner.  Jessica is inspirational.  Additionally, she is a generous and joyous person offstage!

WHT:  What is your next gig after Uncle Vanya closes?
Angelina:  I will be performing next as Annie Sullivan in South Carolina Children’s Theatre’s The Miracle Worker. I will, of course, continue teaching as well. I’m never unoccupied!

Get your tickets now and catch Angelina Mussro at the Warehouse Theatre in Uncle Vanya.