Legacy of 'Porgy and Bess' Explored by Revival's Stars

Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley.

Legacy of 'Porgy and Bess' Explored by Revival's Stars

By Stefanie Pohl. CREATED Mar 21, 2014

Full disclosure: I've had the opportunity to interview cast members of many of the shows that come to the Wharton Center in East Lansing, and in the process I learn a lot about the actors, their methods, and obviously the show itself. The conversation lasts around 15-20 minutes. As a theater enthusiast and curious person, the process is always an enjoyable, informative one.

When I sat down with Nathaniel Stampley and Alicia Hall Moran, stars of the national tour of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, the conversation took on a life of its own. The passion and pride with which these two actors approach their craft, and facilitating the perseverance of this classic tale, is unparalleled. Almost 40 minutes in, the energy of the words swimming through the room felt like it could bust the windows open. 

It only seems right to present their thoughts as fully and in-depth as possible, in order to capture the conversation with these artists. 

Stefanie Pohl: This national tour of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is based on the Broadway revival that won the Tony in 2012. What changes have been made in this version and what can audience-goers expect?

Alicia Hall Moran: I think that even beyond expectations of Porgy and Bess, it's information about Porgy and Bess. If you know nothing - it's shocking - but people still come with an expectation. If they sometimes expect a lot because they know the opera very well, but this is a musical theater-valued production, so what could you expect from that? I tend to take issue with the idea of expectations, because it's like apples and oranges. In the hands of Director Diane Paulus and Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks, in their hands, it's kind of like orange-ade. It's an entirely different kind of opportunity to watch something. The information you come to it with does salt and pepper it. But some of our most enthusiastic fans are people who knew the least, and then people who knew the most. To have your ideas of what a character could do on stage, with big voice - well, we're dancing. I'm singing on my knees. But because we're using microphones and technology, those are things you can do on stage. I don't have to have perfect operatic rib cage placement for you to hear my tiniest whimpers and tones. It allows me to be very flexible. And the love that Porgy and Bess share... man, it's so precious. And in the beginning so tenuous. It's like on a thread - a golden thread, but a thread nonetheless. [The revival] is like an opportunity to let a little more in, but squeezing a little out the back. It's just what you have to do in a good game of dice. 

Pohl: You're traveling with a 23-piece orchestra. As actors, how does that music and presence affect your performance?

Nathaniel Stampley: I think a piece like this lends itself to this - the more people that can tell the story, the better. it's wonderful. If you're just going to have a pianist in the pit, it's not going to serve the story as well. It's going to sound different than other theater shows that you're going to hear and see. Because it's coming from a little bit more of a classic background, but it's done in a different way, people are going to enjoy everything. That's an actual french horn, those are actual strings. Bassoon, oboe. They're in the pit, and we're above them, and we meet in the middle, and share an incredible sound together. They help us tell the story as we help them.  

Pohl: You were the understudies for these lead roles on Broadway, and now you're starring as Porgy and Bess. What is that transformation like as an actor and have you been able to explore the characters more deeply now that you're playing them each night?

Moran: I know for Bess, it's the idea of your feet being held over the fire as the understudy. And then they announce that the star won't be there and there's that groan in the audience. I love it! I'm a very feed me to the lions kind of person. Give me a sword and a shield, but yeah, I want to get in there. I like that combative air pressure thing between the audience and you, to win them over, and get in there. Give them something worth seeing, and to make them forget as quickly as possible that they are anticipating a less-than. I will chomp on that leather all day. I'm made of that. So I love it because all of that energy is bound into my portrayal of Bess. It's aggressive and gritty and like 'I'm not coming out here to be America's Sweetheart right now. I'm coming out here and you don't know who I am and I'm going to take a bite out of you.' And that's the Bess that comes into Catfish Row that night in that red dress. 

I think the directorial experience I had and also with the stage managers and cast on Broadway, it very much was the training ground for everything Bess. I felt like everybody was building me up to be this woman. Tough, but not bulletproof. I think that's the model I had in Audra McDonald (who starred as Bess on Broadway), who was all work, work, work when she was in the space of the theater. I didn't try to bother her with any questions, but she would answer it before I could ask it. 

I did ask [Audra] a question one time. I asked her "Do you ever feel like you're just not going to make it through? As an understudy, there are times where you're going to have to pull through some weeks when she's on vacation. You don't get to say when you get allergies or a head cold. I can't remember exactly what she said, but to me it was that I just have to keep thinking about the apple. You want the apple, you have to taste it, and take the bite. That was a great help to me - the faith of your imagination is going to get you through. It was a beautiful time that I had - it was perfect. 

Stampley: One time for me, there was no advanced warning whatsoever. That happened to be the first time I went on. At the five minute call, they told me I was on. I was dressed in another costume, and they literally stripped me of those clothes. I remember telling the stage manager halfway through the show, "Oh my God, call my wife! Tell her I'm on right now!" There's a level of boldness about being an understudy. I say boldness in that "Yeah, I'm on now. I can do it." You have to have that. If you don't think you can do it, then you are wasting everyone's time. I have that same kind of boldness now in the role, and getting the chance to do this role eight times a week with Alicia, it's almost easier in a way. There isn't the stress of "Will I be on today?" I know I'm on. Now how effective can I be at this Saturday matinee or this Wednesday night show? I really enjoy it, but I definitely take a lot from being the understudy.

As the understudy, you see what the lead actor goes through. They're the first line of defense and hit things head on as title characters. They're carrying the show in a way that you don't have that pressure initially. And when it is your chance, there's a little bit of that person you watch every night in your show. Even if you try not to, it's still based on what you see. It's a bit of osmosis. It helps when you're understudying wonderful people. I think Alicia and I are mindful of the people understudying for us. We have a high standard for ourselves, because we know people are looking to us to inform their performances. 

Pohl: What are some of your pre-show rituals or ways of getting ready for a performance?

Moran: I think a part of being a mature artist is understanding what eyes you're looking through. And then really so you can understand what you're looking at. I think part of a good casting director, people's default ways of looking at things tend to line up with their characters. Maybe not in the beginning of the process, but certainly by the middle and then at the end it's complete. I can break my English quickly, because that's 'how Bess be.' I have to get in like that. So sometimes I notice I come off the stage and someone says something to me, and I'll say 'I don't have time for that.' That's the impulse - I'm living Bess' impulses. As far as preparing for the role and handling my breath, the way I handle my voice, all my stretches have to do with opening my hip joints and shoulders, because [Bess] is reactive like a cat to me. You drop her, she's going to land on her feet. That's something that the playwright communicated to me once, and I liked it so much. You need technique, you need relaxation. But it's up to the individual artist - that's the sink or swim moment - where and how you're going to apply it. My philosophy is that all systems work, but you have to follow all parts of the system. I can be crazy, but I have to have a broom and dustpan. And I have to make the space to allow the dysfunction. 

Stampley: Every person has their own thing. What works for me wouldn't work for [Alicia], and vice versa. As I approach a day, I always work in reverse of the showtime. So my day is based on the number of shows that day. Depending on the showtime, I make sure I have enough calorie intake to sustain my energy at night. I love to work out - that helps me maintain a certain physicality for the show. At the hour and a half time before the show, I'm gearing up for the show, getting into show mode. Other distractions, social media, even family - now it's time to separate and head to the theater. And then we go. After the show, it's hard to come down from the emotional expense of the night. Sometimes I channel that through eating a meal and staying awake, or sometimes I go to the gym after a show. But every day is a different thing, and a certain level of maturity is figuring out what exactly you need to be doing.

Pohl: The original show is nearly 80 years old and had a significant impact on social change in the 30s. Decades later, the show has a new generation of audiences with the revival. How would you describe the legacy of Porgy and Bess?

Stampley: I think there are many aspects to Porgy and Bess that speak to American culture - what's being presented, and how it's received, and who's doing it. The fact that DuBose Heyward wrote a novel about a community he an affection for, but was not a part of, is an interesting idea. He didn't look like the people he's writing about, but he chose to write a successful novel about them. So it starts from a place of appreciation. Then you move forward to the play, a successful play done often. Then the novel and the play draw the attention of one of the world's greatest composers, George Gershwin. Someone else who has an appreciation for music that wasn't inherently his cultural music, but he embraced jazz and used it in a way that served him and served the masses. So there's a convergence of many cultures embracing Porgy and Bess, and this tiny community in Charleston, South Carolina. And now they're presenting it in a way that's not just there, but it's anywhere. Not just it words, but now in music. There's music that represents a certain segment of American culture, that doesn't necessarily reflect the people that created it. And yet the appreciation is there. 

Then there's the artists themselves who have been a part of this piece, and the wonderful legacy of a Todd Duncan and Anne Brown. Then you move forward to Leontyne Price and William Warfield - just incredible artists that are celebrated not just on the stages of theater, but in concert halls all over the world. Those artists have been a part of Porgy and Bess. Even Maya Angelou as a dancer on the European tour. She was a dancer, so she wasn't even expressing herself in words yet that we all know her for. So it's a fascinating piece that has been a vehicle for a lot of people to express themselves. Each time it's done, it's a reflection of who's doing and how audiences are receiving it. Sometimes there has been a friction that has been there. Then in 2012, you bring in a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, an award-winning musical adapter Deidre Murray, and our amazing director Diane Paulus, this all female team. That's a different kind of energy. They're going to present a kind of Porgy and Bess that's different than what it has been. It just has to be. We had a lot of guys telling the story, and now you're in the hands of people that are more than capable of expressing themselves, and shaping and molding this story in a way that everyone can appreciate. before, some of the friction that was there, you can't do the same thing in 2014. Audiences just will not accept certain stereotypes and images that were the core of what Porgy and Bess has been. Now there's another way to see it. It's an incredible piece that lends itself to a lot of controversy, and I think that's the intrigue of the piece, and that's why the piece will continue to be done long after we're off the scene. 

So many people see themselves in this piece, and they don't necessarily have to have brown and black skin. There's that level of appreciation that has always been there for Porgy and Bess that musically, people can change and record parts, from Louis Armstrong to Janis Joplin. The material is there to be explored, and that is the true legacy of Porgy and Bess. It's an honor to be a part of this. This is a new way to do it. We needed to introduce this piece to the next generation, and how does this legacy continue? We have to change it, and change the format. And you see it in a different light. You might still want to see the opera, but thanks to the musical, now you know what it is. 


The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess will be at the Wharton Center through Sunday, March 23rd. Click here for more details.