Saturday, December 08, 2007

Avenue Q’s Washington Connections

I almost neglected to post this article I wrote for The Metro Herald. It is based on interviews with two members of the cast of Avenue Q, which is playing at the National Theatre in Washington, one of its stops on a cross-country tour.

Avenue Q’s Washington Connections
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Two actresses with ties to Washington are in the touring company of Avenue Q, the Tony Award-winning musical playing the National Theatre through December 9. Both studied at Howard University before embarking on their professional careers in film and theatre, and both spoke to the Metro Herald from on the road with Avenue Q.

Danielle K. Thomas, a member of the Avenue Q ensemble, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She started to take dance lessons outside of school while attending John Dewey High School near Coney Island and soon won a scholarship to study with the Alvin Ailey dance company.

Her dance instructor, Michael Goring, had studied at Howard University, and he encouraged Thomas to explore Howard as an option for college. “I went and visited for a day,” she says, “and I liked it.”

“From the moment I stepped into the walls” of Howard University, Thomas says, “I never stopped being involved in theatre,” both back stage and on stage. “I built sets, did lighting, did wardrobe – did noting but theatre,” and her experience at Howard, she says, “gave me the drive and discipline.”

Thomas performed throughout the Washington area. Her first “professional gig” was with the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, but she also performed in Romeo & Juliet in a joint project with Catholic University. “The Capulets came from Howard,” she remembers, while “the Montagues came from Catholic.”

She also taught dance for children’s theatre for two semesters and taught musical theatre to kids in South East D.C. through Washington Very Special Arts. “We put together a little show” for students who had never been exposed to theatre before and “it was great.”

The late Mike Malone -- an instructor at Howard whose name often comes up in interviews with actors who studied there -- introduced Thomas “to a lot of people in musical theatre, like Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad.” A casting director came to Washington to audition girls for German tours of Little Shop of Horrors and Jesus Christ Superstar. “I was reluctant to audtion,” Thomas says, “but Mike Malone made me do it. I got the job and I loved it.”

After those tours ended, Thomas “took some time to relax,” knowing that she would be going back to Germany and also that she would be in a national tour of Cinderella. “I did a couple of things in New York, some staged readings with writers I knew from Howard.” Eventually, she was cast in The Me Nobody Knows with Maurice Hines, then did Hair for two-and-a-half years, won a “Daytony Award” for Seussical in Ohio, and then landed in the cast of Avenue Q.

Thomas says that Avenue Q “is quite the experience. I remember seeing the show for the first time before I auditioned for it, or even thought I would be part of it, and I laughed through it and loved it.”

As far as the audience goes, she says, “I know no one will walk away and not be pleased. Nobody is spared” from the show’s mockery, she notes, but “instead of being offended, you laugh.” The show has an overall, general good feeling. The theme is “life gets better, life changes, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but it’s only a moment.”

During the two-week run in Washington, Thomas’ family will come from New York to see the show, and she plans to visit students at Howard University and the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts. She also looks forward to visiting some of her old hangouts, such as La Bamba on Georgia Avenue and Tropicana in LeDroit Park.

Asked to sum up Avenue Q, Thomas laughs and says, “Avenue Q is an amazing show. Put all your inhibitions away and have a good time.”

Carla Renata, who plays the part of “Gary Coleman,” shares Thomas’ enthusiasm for Avenue Q.

Born in Cherry Point, North Carolina, Renata’s father was in the U.S. Marine Corps. Her parents had been born in St. Louis, and that is what she considers to be her home town.

Renata was a late-comer to the performing arts, not participating in them until after high school. She had won a scholarship through the America’s Junior Miss pageant and first went to Columbia College in Missouri, later transferring to Howard University, in large part because of Howard’s well-known program in the performing arts. At Howard, Renata majored in Broadcast Production and minored in Drama.

“We didn't have a lot of money,” Renata recalls, so “I tried to rely on the talent I had to pay for my college education.” She went on USO tours, did industrial shows, worked at theme parks like Six Flags. That’s how, she explains, “I got the bug to perform. I couldn't believe I was getting a pay check for doing something I loved.”

After college, Renata went to New York, where she worked as a publicist for eight or nine years for such clients as Coca-Cola and Maybelline. While working for a company called Orchid Communications, she felt the draw of the stage. “I quit and decided that I would go for it and see what happened.”

What happened was that she got a part in the 20th anniversary tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. That initial success was followed by frustration, however. “I was getting further and further in debt,” but she auditioned successfully for Des McAnuff’s production of The Who’s Tommy and went on to work under the same director in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (starring Matthew Broderick).

That was followed by the critically-acclaimed production of Cy Coleman’s The Life on Broadway. When that show closed, Renata says, “I decided to go to Los Angeles to work on [television] pilots.”

Although she went to Los Angeles to work in TV, she got an audition for the LA company of Disney’s The Lion King. “And it ran for three years. That got me back on track.”

Unfortunately, “right before The Lion King closed, my agent kicked me to the curb. For 2003 and 2004, I didn't have an agent, but I was able to book a commercial or voiceover here and there to keep myself afloat.”

After that, “I went to a workshop for ethnic actors, I was one of 20 who participated, and we picked a scene from play or movie, which we would do in front of casting directors from CBS.” Renata reports that the day after the workshop, “I got a phone call that CSI wanted to see me. It all worked out really well. I literally went from being on nobody's radar to being on everybody's radar. I was seen by most influential casting directors and started a television career.”

Renata says that she has an added advantage “because I can sing and I can do musicals.” For six months, she was in We Will Rock You in Las Vegas, which was produced by Robert DeNiro.

How did Renata end up in Avenue Q? She had auditioned for the show in 2005, but the producers decided against a national tour and instead had an extended run in Las Vegas. “When they finally decided to do a national tour, they called me back.”

The role she plays in Avenue Q is named for a real person and is meant to have some of that real person’s characteristics. “I'm not really playing Gary Coleman,” Renata says. “I’m not doing an impersonation of him. I can't be him because I'm a girl and he's shorter than me.”

Within the context of Avenue Q – if one looks at it as a sort of “after-school special” – Gary Coleman is the ‘special guest star,’ the one with all the wisdom. He’s been there, done that. He tries to impart his wisdom upon Princeton” – the character who provides Avenue Q‘s point of view – “who doesn’t have a clue about how to live life after college.”

To prepare for the role, Renata says she “watched a lot of episodes of Diff’rent Strokes, to get his facial expressions and vocal nuances, so I can sort-of, kind-of bring ‘Gary Coleman’ to the forefront.”

For Renata, playing a male character is a challenge because, she explains, “I’m very girly. I like manicures and pedicures. To play a boy in a rugby shirt and overalls and Timberland boots and a baseball cap, I had to find a way to sit on my hands. I keep [my hands] in the pockets of my tool belt, because otherwise I look like a girl and the audience gets very confused. I try to walk like a guy” and do enough “physical stuff” to put the character’s gender across.

On returning to Washington, Renata says she plans to see some of her instructors at Howard who are still teaching. “I’m looking forward to rolling through and saying ‘hi,” and I want to see the campus.” Renata’s mother also lives in Washington, so she will be visiting her, as well.

Doing a national tour and moving frequently from city to city is “physically taxing,” she says. “Sometimes I am so incredibly tired that i don't feel like doing it; the energy we expend in two hours is the same as other people expend in eight.” Fortunately, she adds, “the people I work with are amazingly talented and beautiful, genuine people.”

Moreover, Renata says, she is “happy to have a job, with all the strikes. If I were in Los Angeles, there would be no jobs, except for commercials. Everybody who can’t work on episodic television now is trying to work on commercials,” because those who write commercials are not members of the Writers Guild of America – they are copywriters for advertising agencies – and therefore not on strike. “I am very grateful to have a job,” Renata notes wistfully.

But more than just that, with Avenue Q “I'm getting to live out my childhood fantasy. How many children watch Sesame Street and want to jump into the television and be part of that?”

Asked what she thinks of the show itself, Renata answers: Avenue Q is funny. We're living in a time when there are natural disasters all over, at war with Iraq, presidential election, Avenue Q will help people laugh. The show pokes fun at everybody but it has a lesson that everything in life is only for now, when you wake up tomorrow, tomorrow's a brand new day.”

Still, she warns, Avenue Q “is an adult-themed puppet show. Children who see it should be 12 or over, because of some of the things we say and some of the things we do.”

That said, she concludes: “If you buy a ticket, you will laugh your buns off.”

Before coming to Washington, the Avenue Q tour stopped in Des Moines and Pittsburgh after six weeks in San Diego. After Washington, the show moves to San Francisco, Tucson, and Houston. It will be in Minneapolis just after the start of the New Year.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

snore ...