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"I keep getting roped into it!" explained Clark from the house of the downtown Sheen Center, where the Pace University production of The Light in the Piazza is being staged through Nov. 8. Clark and the cast were in the midst of a final dress rehearsal — students were changing into costumes, lighting cues were being adjusted, and the Piazza Tony winner (this time, as director) was observing from the center orchestra.
"Amy Rogers is a former student of mine. She runs the theatre department. She asked me to come do it," Clark continued. "I actually left Cinderella to come do it. It was that important to me." Clark originated the role of the overly concerned Southern mother Margaret Johnson, receiving critical acclaim for her performance and taking home the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Tony for her performance. She performed in the Adam Guettel-Craig Lucas musical for the entirety of its run, including the musical's widespread PBS broadcast on "Live from Lincoln Center."
"You know," she confided, "I originally moved to New York to direct. I just fell into acting accidentally. This is really like coming full circle big time."
In college, at Yale University, Clark began directing during her sophomore year. When she moved to New York to study with New York University's Musical Theatre Master's Program, she continued to fine tune her craft until, she said, "I started to get paid to be an actor."
Now, fresh off her Tony-nominated turn as the fairy godmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, she returns to her roots, and she couldn't be happier.
"I just love the students so much," she said, gushing with enthusiasm. "I love them. I love working with them. Like I told them — and it's the truth — I wake up every morning, and I can't wait to see them. I'm just pacing around the apartment, [thinking], 'When's it time to go to rehearsal?' because they're so beautiful, and they work so hard, and they really, really care deeply about the piece and about their work. It shows!"
During the Sunday evening rehearsal, the Pace University students were wrapping up a stumble-through, changing into their first-act attire and preparing for a run-through of Piazza. The stage was washed in pale colors — creating the world of 1950s summertime Italy — and a student was practicing on the 50s-style bicycle that rides through the town, where Margaret and Clara Johnson explore the "Statues and Stories" of Florence.
Aside from a much smaller stage (compared to the cavernous Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center, where Piazza ran through 2006), one could forget that he was watching a college production. The Pace creative team and cast, led by Ragan Pharris in the role that Clark created, act, sing and conduct themselves as professionals — and the program is one of the most highly regarded in the city.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If I had been in college and someone from the original production of anything had come and worked with me for nine weeks, I would have had a heart attack," admitted Clark. "I think a lot of what they're teaching me is how people, even young people, can draw from their own experience… And then they're teaching me how impressive they are, basically."
Although Clark has been singing the students' praises, some were still nervous to be taking direction from the musical's Tony-winning star.
"I was so nervous at first — I really was — just playing somebody beyond my years, first of all, and then being directed by the woman who created this woman," admitted Pharris. "But she really relieved all that pressure day one at the read-through. She really allowed me to bring my own into it, with all of her influence, of course."
Pharris, a senior at Pace University, said that some of her best moments at college have been spent this semester in the corner with Clark, who helped her pull from her own experiences to create the overbearing mother of a girl whose mental abilities were disabled at a young age. "She's a mother, so most of our conversations are around being a mother and pulling from her insight," said Pharris. "There's so much life that I haven't lived, and she makes it so relatable to what I have lived. You can only pull from what you know, and she can give me lots of ideas, but she's really helped me figure out what I can pull from to be a part of this role. Our moments in the corner, just whispering, have been some of the most valuable times with her."
Clark explained, "It's hard for them to draw substitutions for something they can't possibly imagine. It's hard to imagine what you're going to feel like 30 years from now, so what we keep coming back to is, 'You know what it feels like to feel ashamed and embarrassed and to feel like something that you've done is unforgiveable.' That's Margaret's big thing — she feels like she's done something that she can't forgive herself for."
Clark has bestowed her knowledge on young adults inhabiting the material before—she mentored students at the Beacon School, where her son, Thomas Luke Guest, played Signor Naccarelli.
"We're encouraging them to really enter [the world]," said Clark. "This particular group — my son's group was that way, too… Getting the group to really live inside the world — instead of having it be there, but [to] have them feel it inside themselves — is a gift. I can't teach you how to do that. More and more they're starting to behave like their characters and really experience it rather than act it. It's very emotional for me, obviously. It's like my baby. This piece is like one of my children."
Performances of The Light in the Piazza are offered Oct. 31 at 7:30 PM, Nov. 1-2 at 2 PM and 7:30 PM, Nov. 5-7 at 7:30 PM and Nov. 8 at 2 PM and 7:30 PM at the Sheen Center at 18 Bleecker Street.
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(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)