DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Now. Here. This. and [title of show] Star Susan Blackwell

By Andrew Gans
March 9, 2012

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.



SUSAN BLACKWELL
Fans of the witty, humorous and ultimately touching cult-hit musical [title of show], which debuted at The Vineyard in 2006 prior to its run on Broadway two years later, have reason to celebrate. The entire troupe of gifted artists who created, directed and/or starred in that intermissionless meta-musical are back with a brand-new production. Entitled Now. Here. This., the new musical work is currently making its world premiere at Off-Broadway's Vineyard, where it is in previews prior to an official opening March 28. Now. Here. This. has a book by Hunter Bell and Susan Blackwell, with music and lyrics by Jeff Bowen. It's based on a collaboration by Bell, Michael Berresse, Blackwell, Heidi Blickenstaff, Jeff Bowen and Larry Pressgrove and stars Bell, Blackwell, Blickenstaff and Bowen. Earlier this week, I had the great pleasure to chat with the wonderfully talented comedic actress Susan Blackwell, who engendered a devoted following during the Off-Broadway and subsequent Broadway productions of [title of show], which cast her as the equally wonderful and talented comedic actress "Susan." Blackwell spoke thoughtfully about her latest theatrical outing; that interview follows.

Question: Tell me a little bit about the genesis of Now. Here. This.
Susan Blackwell: All of this started when we were still doing [title of show], and we were asked to perform at benefits and one-offs, and we would write these very involved pieces for these fundraising events and appearances, and we liked them. Some of them we liked so much that we were looking to do a project that reflected some of that storytelling and performance style [from] those pieces. We workshopped the show a number of places. Hunter and I worked at the MacDowell Artists Colony. The whole lot of us went up to the 2009 Cabaret Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. We worked it out at places like Art Omi and the Weston Playhouse up in Vermont and, eventually, a lab here at the Vineyard Theatre last spring. And, that's where we find ourselves today. The most asked question is, "Is this a prequel or a sequel to [title of show]?" Actually, it has some of the sensibilities of [title of show], but it looks absolutely nothing like it. It is the same core of collaborators: myself, Hunter Bell, Jeff Bowen, Heidi Blickenstaff, Michael Berresse and Larry Pressgrove. So you'll see the same four monkeys jumping around on the stage, but it's very different. It's a very different animal.

Blackwell and Hunter Bell in [title of show].
photo by Carol Rosegg/span>

Question: When did the idea to take those pieces that you had been working on and turn them into a show come about?
Blackwell: Well, I had been given some really good advice by some fellow Vineyard alums, actually, John Flansburgh and his wife, Robin Goldwasser. John Flansburgh is in the band They Might Be Giants, and he and Robin had collaborated on People Are Wrong! that had been at the Vineyard. And, they gave me some really good advice, which is, "Start your next project while you're still doing your current project," so I had that in mind that I wanted to sow the seeds of the next thing, and I also wanted to have an excuse to continue working with this group of people that I love so much. For me, it was the logical next step because it was work that we were already dabbling in, which is a more direct-address storytelling style that is blended with music. It was a very organic genesis from those pieces that we were doing around town at benefits and galas and appearances and fundraisers. It sort of came out of that.

Question: For this, the book credit is shared by you and Hunter. I was wondering how you work at writing together. What is your process?
Blackwell: It's really been excellent and interesting and aided by new technology. We use Google Docs, and what that allows us to do is as many people as are shared on the document can be in the document working, so Hunter and I sometimes will be sitting either side-by-side or across the country from each other, and we will be writing sometimes in the same sentence on a Google Doc, and sometimes we will be conferencing via Skype, so we'll be talking and writing simultaneously. For me, the funnest [laughs] or the most invigorating is when we are not in the same room… Not to say that I don't love being in the same room with him, because I do, but it always is a kick when we're across the country from each other and we are working on the same sentence simultaneously. I know what he's thinking, and we're just sort of literally finishing each other's sentences. It's very fun! [Laughs.] It's a real pleasure. And then, there are some pieces that are more in his domain, and he is sort of the chief writer on certain pieces, and there are things that are more my responsibility, and we consult each other and use each other as sounding boards. Also, we confer heavily, of course, with Jeff Bowen, who is composing the music and lyrics, and with our director, Michael Berresse, who has a very strong dramaturgical sense and is incredibly influential in the shape of the piece. I think when people see it they'll see that it's heavily collaged and quilted, and it's complicated. It's complicated, and we could not have done such a complex piece of writing without the eyes of Michael Berresse.

Blackwell and Jeff Bowen in [title of show].
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: What felt different and what felt the same in creating this work as opposed to when you all were working on [title of show]?
Blackwell: It's a little bit of a different — just because I am taking responsibilities as a co-author, a co-book writer — set of responsibilities for me. And, previously, I could go home after rehearsal and just relax or learn my lines. Now, after rehearsal, I have to address script issues, and I always appreciated the work that Hunter and Jeff did on [title of show], and now I appreciate it even more! [Laughs.]

Question: If someone asked you, "How would you describe the show?" or "What can we expect?," what would you say?
Blackwell: Let's see… I would say that it is… [Laughs.] Oh, Andrew, where to begin! I would say that it is a lot of great stories and great music woven together in a really fun rollercoaster ride.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for yourself, as a performer?
Blackwell: My favorite moment right now, to watch, is — let me think about this — I love watching Heidi Blickenstaff do a piece that's called "Give Me Your Attention." That is enjoyable. [Laughs.] As a performer… What do I love doing right now? Here's a pageant answer for you: I love being on stage again with these people that I love. So, right now, that's the part that I'm really savoring. There's so many good individual moments, but just the opportunity to be on stage with these people again brings me so much happiness.

Question: What do you think you learned from the developmental lab production at the Vineyard?
Blackwell: I think that the spine of the show came into focus. I'm mixing my metaphors, but I think that we became clearer about what it is that we wanted to say. We always ask ourselves, as a group, "Why are we breaking the silence?" You know: "Justify your existence." People pay a lot of money and take time to come and watch this stuff, so justify your existence/why break the silence? And, I think that we have really clarified what we're saying and why we want to say it.

Question: The [title of show] fans were so enthusiastic. Did you feel any pressure to live up to their expectations?
Blackwell: To what I just said, I feel the obligation to make something that values people's time and money. I feel the obligation, not to please people, but to honor the fact that people spend money and take time out of their incredibly busy lives to sit down for 100 minutes and stare at us. So, I feel the obligation to do my absolute best work for them and serve something that, I think, will be of quality and have meaning for them.

Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff in [title of show].
photo by Carol Rosegg

Question: What does the title mean to you — how did the title come about?
Blackwell: There was a monk named Thomas Merton — a Trappist monk — and he is reported to have said that if one can get to the intersection of "Now. Here. This." Now: the present moment. Here: wherever you are. This: whatever it is you're doing. If you can get to the intersection of those three things, then you will be free to truly appreciate your life. So, for me, Now. Here. This. is about the desire to and the struggle and the impediment to getting to the present moment and appreciating your life — being happy, loving who you are. So that's what that means to me.

Question: In the same vein, how has your life changed since [title of show]?
Blackwell: [Laughs.] Andrew, that's a good question! How has my life changed since [title of show]? I think that in many ways, it still looks very similar. I'm still married to my husband. I still get up and go to my office and work my office job. I still have the same group of friends. I think that it has changed my life in the following ways: I think I am more creatively confident. I think there are more opportunities that are offered to me. I think that I am freer. I think I am more free as a person.

Question: What's the feeling with this show? Are you guys thinking Broadway or are you taking it one day at a time?
Blackwell: Andrew! I'm always thinking Broadway! [Laughs.] I'm always thinking Broadway, but we're just taking it one day at a time.

Question: [title of show] is popping up regionally. I wonder if you've gone to see any of the productions and what that's been like to see.
Blackwell: I have! I've seen a couple of productions, and it is many things. It is surreal. It's surreal to see other actors in other cities enact a segment of your life in front of you. It is incredibly gratifying to see that it is simply a book musical, and it is the story of four friends having an adventure, and it's fun to see the jokes totally play when they come out of other people's mouths. It's really a kick in the pants! [Laughs.] It's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see something like that, and I recommend it to people. They should write a musical, and then go see other people play them because it's really, really fun.

Laura Jordan as "Susan" in [title of show] at California's TheatreWorks.
Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Question: Have you ever seen someone play you that you thought did a line better than you and laugh at that?
Blackwell: There is an actress named Laura Jordan, who actually came in to audition to standby for, I think, the commercial production of [title of show], and she subsequently did the production out west. She played Susan in a production of [title of show] out west. And, I have to tell you, after her audition, I said to my castmates, "I think that Laura Jordan can play Susan better than I can!" [Laughs.] She was just so great!

Question: You were great, too!
Blackwell: Well, you're nice Andrew.

Question: That must be strange to see other people doing something that is so personal to all of you.
Blackwell: Yeah, there's a weirdness to it, and there's also, to be frank, it's oddly flattering for some reason. Like I said, it's gratifying to see it succeed without us being there. That's really, I think, a testament to Hunter and Jeff's writing, and for all the people that thought that [title of show] could only be performed by us, it's proof that they were incorrect.

Question: Do you all ever talk about doing [title of show] again somewhere, sometime, someday?
Blackwell: We have talked about doing it. There's a producer in London who wanted to bring it to the West End, and I'm always open to adventures. I'm getting to the point where I'm like, "I think I'm too old to play the role of Susan! They need a young whippersnapper in there." [Laughs.]

Question: Looking back at your other theatrical credits — not [title of show] or Now. Here. This. — do you have a favorite theatre experience?
Blackwell: Oh, my God! I feel like I should have brought my bio....The thing that jumps to mind that is one of the things that was closest to my heart. When I first moved to New York — I was much younger — I was involved in a reverse-gender production of The Heidi Chronicles, and I played Peter Patrone in that production. And, next to playing myself in [title of show], or I should say a version of myself in [title of show] and a version of myself in Now. Here. This., that character is/was the closest to me that I have ever played, and I only know second hand, [but] I don't think that Wendy Wasserstein was pleased that that production existed, but I have to say, I'm so thankful that I had the opportunity to play that part because it meant so much to me, and that character felt so aligned with me… That was really a favorite. Basically, I'm a gay dude walking around in a lady suit. [Laughs.]

Question: Maybe you guys should do [title of show] again and reverse genders. You and Heidi play the guys…
Blackwell: Andrew, I think that is a capital idea!

[For more information go to www.vineyardtheatre.org or call the box office at (212) 353-0303. Now. Here. This. is scheduled to run to April 15 on the following schedule: Tuesdays at 7 PM, Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM and 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM.]

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