Nancy Halverson Makes Her Debut at The Warehouse Theatre
Over the last three seasons, we’ve conducted a lot of interviews here featuring the artists that create our main stage shows. This is the first time we’ve been able to sit down with a director so early in the show’s process. Nancy, who leads the The Children’s Museum of the Upstate by day, is now leading the gritty world of Urinetown the Musical by night. Exploring a show for laughs, truth, heart, and honesty, Nancy shares with us what the themes of this Tony Award winner mean to her and her excitement as she begins bringing it to life.
WHT: Will you please share with us a brief description about how you approach directing for the theatre? What’s your starting point? Your process in brief?
Nancy: Whether I’m working on a musical or a straight play, the script is my roadmap. I read thru at least once a week during preproduction in order to try and reveal the playwright/composer/lyricist intent. Once I feel I’ve mined what is on the page, I try to discover what I can contribute as the designated storyteller honoring the opportunity a playwright offers when he/she releases their creation and makes it available for another artist to interpret. Once the designers and actors join the process I try to step back and absorb what they each bring to the story. Finally, we work together to create a production that respects the original intent and simultaneously reflects who we are as an artistic collective within the community we serve.
WHT: Tell us a bit about the discoveries you’ve made from your initial read to now in the early stage of rehearsals?
Nancy: My initial read of the script was actually back in 2008 when I was cast in the role of Pennywise for the Black Hills Playhouse. It was the first time in my career that I was cast in a “character role” instead of as the “ingénue.” Any actress over 30 can tell you that it is a very dark day. But, once I got over myself, I realized that it was a lot more fun to live inside a character rich with layers, secrets and life experiences to explore.
Fast forward to picking up the script for this production in 2016 and reading the script thru the much wider lens of the director, I have appreciated the ingenuity of a book that explores so many universal themes and archetypal characters while simultaneously parodying its own genre of musical theatre.
WHT: What struck you as most important in that reacquaintance with the script?
Nancy: Little Sally’s line, “It’s not a very happy musical, ” speaks to the intent of the show. It is a dark show that explores some pretty ugly parts of the human psyche thru the exaggerated, sometimes formulaic, vocabulary of musical theatre. If we can’t poke fun at ourselves for our failings as human beings then what is the point!
In musical theatre, as in life, we want a happy ending. We want to cheer for the good guys, boo the bad guys and know that good will triumph over evil before the lights go out. Not in Urinetown. This show demonizes capitalism, celebrates populism, exposes corporate mismanagement and exonerates those who believe that, because of their wealth or position, are somehow above the law…wait…this all sounds way to familiar!
The genius of a great story, like Hamlet or Death of A Salesman (yes, I am comparing Urinetown to the works of Shakespeare and Arthur Miller), is that the universal themes and archetypal characters force us to look at ourselves for better or for worse. And so, regardless of any party affiliation, it is impossible not to recognize, within the fictitious world of Urinetown, a striking resemblance to the actors we have cast to strut upon our political stage vying for the opportunity to amass great power and, inevitably, affect all of our lives. Sounds like the plot of a musical to me!
So, what are we to take away from all of this? Perhaps there is something in Lockstock’s last line “Hail Malthus” that references an essay written in 1798 by Thomas Robert Malthus on the Principle of Population. Malthus predicted that the human species will always find ways to destroy itself in order to maintain a balance with the natural resources needed for subsistence. Is that where we are headed as a civilization? Is that the lesson?
WHT: How much have the production meetings re-shaped your thinking about the show?
Nancy: The opportunity to work with this amazing creative team has definitely expanded my ability to visualize a relevant interpretation of the script. It has been a wonderful experience and I am so grateful and honored to work with such generous artists.
WHT: What strikes you as the most fun element about the show itself?
Nancy: Throughout the show, Lockstock and Little Sally talk about what musicals “shouldn’t do,” all the while paying homage to musical theatre clichés, like a generous nod to West Side Story with “Snuff that Girl,” containing lyrics and rhythms that beg for synchronized violence and choreography rife with finger-snapping. There is the opportunity to reinvent the flag waving moment of civil disobedience in Les Miserables – although our own creative team saw this as an opportunity to reference the hottest ticket on Broadway, Hamilton. Most deliberately, the show and our production strive to use and abuse the principals of the Epic Theatre established by Berthold Brecht which he described as a “great struggle for supremacy between words, music and production.” According to Brecht, every element of the production should be self-contained and adopt an attitude that comments upon the other. Satire, parody, or to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature. You decide.
WHT: How much do you think of the audience when you are directing? What specifically do you think about in that instance?
Nancy: In 1985, I had the honor of working with Stephen Sondheim and George Furth on a workshop production of Merrily We Roll Along. The production happened intentionally under the radar of the press so that they could experiment with the skeletal structure of the script which was receiving terrible reviews in its previews.
The first iteration of the script was a linear story of teenage characters making their way through adolescence and ultimately successful careers as composer and lyricist of musical theatre. In spite of a poor response to the book (the score was reviewed positively from the start), Sondheim and Furth felt they had a strong nucleus of a story but understood that their adult audience was not connecting with the trajectory of the teenage characters. After many attempts to reshape the book, the team decided to try moving the last scene to the beginning of the show and play the rest of the story as a flashback. A first in the history of musical theatre.
Upon their decision to completely turn the script inside out, Sondheim and Furth had to leave town for other obligations. It was then my job to get on the phone with Sondheim each evening after the show ended to describe in detail how the audience reacted to this new dramatic structure. He asked that I watch carefully for specific exacting moments when the audience shifted their attention, sympathies or engagement with each characters journey. Many nights he would listen to my observations and then dictate edits or new dialogue for us to insert the next night in order to achieve his desired results.
It was that experience that has shaped my directing and has given me a keen awareness and appreciation of the vital role an audience plays as fellow excavators and interpreters of any script realized through production. Inviting an audience into the world of a play requires artists to respect and value that every audience member comes with his own ideas and prejudices. Yet, a well- crafted production allows us to explore universal themes that challenge us to stretch ourselves and leave the theatre a little better off for having shared the journey.
Catch Nancy’s direction of Urinetown the Musical when it opens September 16th. Premium cabaret seats are available throughout the four week run, allowing you the most engrossing seats imaginable for this unforgettable evening of theatre!