After Revolutionizing Les Miz, Director Liesl Tommy Parties Deep With Her Party People

News   After Revolutionizing Les Miz, Director Liesl Tommy Parties Deep With Her Party People
 
"Kevin Moriarty called me after seeing my production of Party People at OSF and said you should direct musicals, and you should direct Les Miz," Liesl Tommy relayed in a recent interview.

Liesl Tommy
Liesl Tommy Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

She is of course referring to her revamping of the cult classic Les Miserables which received a momentous amount of attention at artistic director Moriarty's Dallas Theater Center this past summer.  The reviews lauded, an in some cases raged against, Tommy in particular for her courage and singular interpretation of a classic piece of musical theatre. The actors wore modern-dress, but more importantly, the dreams of the characters were re-envisioned and re-personalized in a revolutionary, modern and timeless manner.

And speaking of "dreaming a dream," Tommy's career has certainly turned into just that for many up-and-coming directors on the American theater scene. An associate director at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, an Obie award winner for the best new American play Appropriate at the Signature Theater in New York and a lauded captain of several productions at the nation's most acclaimed regional theatres, Tommy has moved from new work to American classics to musicals in unprecendented fashion during her still blossoming career – and the momentum behind and around her is certainly not stopping any time soon.

Playbill.com caught up with Tommy while in tech for her second iteration of Party People at her homebase at the acclaimed Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California, helmed by artistic director Tony Taccone.

Tommy has seen the development of the innovative musical, which chronicles the history of the Black Panthers and Young Lords, from its commissioning by Oregon Shakespeare Festival to workshops and a production there and now its new incarnation on her home turf.

Berkeley's production of Party People officially opened Oct. 24 and will run through Nov. 30. Tommy  and a creative team including cast member/writer/theatre-making team UNIVERSES - Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William Ruiz aka Ninja, lead a large cast in a daring sociopolitical musical whirlwind.

Christopher Livingston in <i>Party People</i>
Christopher Livingston in Party People Photo by Kevin Berne

According to Berkeley Rep, audiences should, "get ready for a hyperkinetic mix of live video, hip hop, jazz, rock, gospel, blues, Latin rhythms and spoken word as the explosive theatre ensemble UNIVERSES rocks and unlocks the radical and complicated legacy of the Black Panthers and Young Lords."

Having opened to reviews using words like "riveting" and "rebirth" and "revolution," Party People's story brings to life, "these seminal activists [who] fought injustice, provided free food and medical care for their communities—and struggled against a government determined to suppress them. Based on dozens of interviews, Party People imagines the Black Panthers and Young Lords reuniting today at an art opening curated by a couple of young counterculturists, where old wounds open and generations collide. What is the price of being a revolutionary, and what happens to those who come after?"

Outside of the press blurb for the production, Tommy talked about Party People as real life historical events that merge into artistic memory – a fusion of music, movement and memory, in fact – with a first musical and dance number that lasts for almost 15 minutes of full-out singing and dancing. On the first ten-out-of-twelve technical rehearsal, Tommy cites the incredible determination, professionalism and bravery of her ensemble who "danced and sang full out for the whole first day." Ten hours were entirely devoted to only the initial 20 pages of the play.

"I push actors very hard," Tommy confessed, but, "every now and then, I take an acting class to remind myself what actors do and to upset the balance of power." 

Nehal Joshi in <i>Les Miserables</i>
Nehal Joshi in Les Miserables Photo by Karen Almond

And indeed, power, class, race and passion harken back to Tommy's own upbringing in Apartheid South Africa. Of her intensely personal work on both Party People at Berkeley and Les Miserables in Dallas, Tommy said that both stories spoke to that history because they were about not only civil rights, but about, "people taking to the streets and drawing a line in the sand to build a civil society that reflects their principles." A truly elegant allusion.

In regards to Party People in particular, she reminds audiences that right now is also a, "political time for people of color in this country, exactly like the 50s when the Panthers formed." Listening to her compare both Les Mis and Party People, it is clear and pressing that Tommy is not interested in only making theatre that tells interesting stories, but theatre that tell stories to "feel immediate, and not like a history play."

Of course, directing only musicals this season is a distinct turning point in Tommy's career which has moved from Hamlet at California Shakespeare where she worked with frequent collaborators Zainab Jah and LeRoy McClain, to new straight play development with visionary Branden Jacobs-Jenkins on Appropriate, to the "beginning of a long-term relationship with Nehal Joshi," her Jean Valjean at Dallas.

"We all have people we connect with profoundly as artists," Tommy said, and no matter if she's running an audition room for a musical, new play or classic she is interested in, above all, "tapping into the soul of the artist."

In fact, she even spoke about getting stopped on the street in New York after all the press from her Les Mis by extremely, "well-trained performers who don't see themselves in the public face of this industry," who were inspired by her work and moved to tears - much to her humble shock. But it is all-too-clear, perhaps to everyone but Tommy, that her connection to the art is not intellectual, commercial or ideological, but intensely personal, truthful and visceral. Tears are a part of that.  When asked about the energy in her audition rooms, she says, frankly, "I want to see the real thing."

So when actors get nervous, or forget to do what's actually required of them in a scene, "I always make sure to put my hand on their shoulder and to have a little breath with them. I ground them and I treat them like they're auditioning for Hamlet or Ophelia," no matter what the project. And in regards to musicals, her new forte, she says, there are, "a million actors with beautiful voices," but sometimes she doesn't even audition them. She'd rather meet them for coffee, and in the words of one of her unnamed cast members, she is using this time, "just waiting for [you] to reveal your soul." She trusts that if you're meeting with her, that when it comes to being in the audition room, "Your technique will be there," and knowingly reminds you to, "engage your core, or nerves will take over." Did we also mention that Tommy trained as an actor at the acclaimed Trinity Repertory Conservatory, now the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA programs?

What's it like then, to work with writers, actors, designers and musicians in a world where boundaries and duties shift with something like Party People?

"It's really hard to take yourself out of it," Tommy said, but working on a new play and especially a new musical, "changes everything." And Party People is about, "unsung American heroes whose stories need to be heard and seen."

So in the rehearsal hall, though the process may be exhausting and intricate, it doesn't seem to weigh on her. Her tone of voice is light and confident. "I feel like I'm so inspired all the time. If I feel exhaustion it goes away immediately because of who's in the room," she laughed into the phone.

Sounds like a party to us.

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Party People plays Tuesdays through Sundays through Nov. 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Thrust Stage (2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA).

Tickets range from $35-87.

Visit berkeleyrep.org for more information.

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